Barn Owl on Martha’s Vineyard

by Lanny McDowell on January 23, 2010


I received a call from someone who had found a barn owl in the snow, with just its head protruding.  It had died, most probably from starvation, and it was found a few feet from a small rural outbuilding which had been fitted with an entrance hole high up in the gable end.  I do not know if there was a nesting box inside, or only the visible entrance hole, clearly provided as an access for winged beasties.

The snow was melting away leaving more of the dead owl exposed.  The caller and I speculated on the raptor’s demise.  I spoke of the recurring threat of snow cover too deep for too long, the condition that denies the owl’s access to rodents and that defines how far north (so far) these birds can survive.  Or, in this case, how far north they cannot survive.

Sadness is balanced by appreciation of the incredible beauty of the remains. We usually see a flash of solid and ghostly white overhead when these beauties are encountered, slipping by in the dark or rasping their awful screeches.  Seen from above and at close range, the details of pattern, color and individual feather design are breathtaking.   Seeing a Barn Owl this close may not prompt you to go to church, but there is religion in the air, awe in your heart.

Here she is at arm’s length, still handsome, though the spirit has flown on:

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Begin the Cosmic Plumage Tour:

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The business end:

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Birds are cool!  Lanny

These images and Avian Art fine art prints are available for purchase. Contact me or View my gallery.

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Deb 01.23.10 at 10:49 pm

Lanny: Beautiful bird from a sad demise. I was hoping to see the face/head as I sculpted a barn owl from clay in high school and wanted to see your photos to compare. The coloring and feather details brought out in your photos is awe-inspiring. Thanks for the photo journalist piece. -Deb


Lanny McDowell 01.24.10 at 8:24 am

I chose not to shoot photos of the face and underside because this bird had been lying in and under the snow for a few days and was far from perfect from below. One thing I did notice about the owl, though, was how big the beak is. Like most owls, I imagine, the facial feathering covers up most of the beak, so the impression is quite different from a hawk’s face. It’s a little odd, in that a Rough-legged Hawk, which like a Barn Owl eats almost exclusively small rodents, has a relatively dainty beak. Dainty, unless you are on the sharp end.


Soo 01.25.10 at 9:22 am

Incredible feather shots. Did you take photos of the leading edge of the Barn Owl’s wings-the feature that give owls the ability for silent running?


Lanny McDowell 01.25.10 at 10:03 am

I did not. I was so captivated by the color and patterns. I really don’t know if the feather structure difference would show up at this level of magnification, but I do know it would be great to have the lens and the lighting to see it.

Is it fun having your Vineyard Birds II site up and running? Plug, plug: I see the blog is expanding.


William Kramer 01.25.10 at 10:09 pm

Amazing, one of my top three birds I hope i am blessed with to see in my life. The feather detail is unreal, so amazing. Thanks for sharing this rare experience!


Pikachu 03.11.13 at 4:39 pm

Having гeaԁ thіs I believed it waѕ verу
infοrmative. I аpprecіatе you tаκing
the timе and energу to ρut thiѕ contеnt tоgether.

I oncе аgаin fіnd myself spending a signіfiсant amount of timе
both rеading and lеaving comments.
But ѕο what, it was ѕtіll worth it!

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