Miel Bernstein has new tenants in her nearly 130-year-old barn. She’s hoping the people of Agassiz will come together to make sure they can stay.
Two barn owls have taken up residence on Bernstein’s property, and have been spotted getting cozy in the rafters of the barn. It’s possible this pair could turn out to be the parents of a new family of babies in the future, but they have a long way to go before that can happen.
“This seems to be the hard time of year for them,” Bernstein said. “If we’ve got a snowfall now, or whatever, now if we lost one of them, generally they won’t pair up again and we wouldn’t have babies again this year. So these next couple months are a bit of a precarious time for them.”
Barn owls are one of the most widely distributed species of owl in the world, but in Canada they only exist in the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, small pockets of the Interior and part of the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.
The western owls are listed as a threatened species federally, and are red-listed provincially. The Fraser Valley population was estimated between 250 and 1,000 individuals in 2010, and has seen declines since the 1980s, largely because of habitat loss, rat poison and highway moralities.
Bernstein’s farm has long been an attractive place for barn owls, with two nesting boxes and plenty of trees.
In 2019, Bernstein had two families taking up residence on her property. One was raised in the nest the two owls are occupying now. The other family lived in Bernstein’s shavings barn.
Those four babies spent six weeks living comfortably in a nesting box in the top of the barn, and then were banded by barn owl advocate Dick Clegg. The banding would help researchers know how old they were and where they were born if they were ever hit by a car or caught as adults.
They never made it out of the nest.
“Mom picked up a poisoned rat and she and all but two babies ended up dying from that poisoning before they were able to leave,” Bernstein said. “That was really awful.”
The two babies who did survive were taken to Delta’s OWL Society to be rehabilitated. They were released in the Agassiz area after they had reached maturity.
The following year, no owls came to nest on Bernstein’s property.
This year, the two owls taking up residence in Bernstein’s barn have given her hope that there could be more babies in the future. But, she said, “they have to make it all the way.”
Avoiding rat poison is the best way people can help Bernstein’s owls make it through to the next year. A dead or dying rodent can appear to be an easy meal, but usually results in a family mortality.
Long term, residents can help barn owls by leaving trees up on their properties, and by providing nesting habitat through owl boxes or open access buildings.