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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

February 23, 2015Singular effort initiates DNR Barn Owl nest box program

Because one S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employee decided to invest his time and talent, barn owls on the South Carolina coast are thriving and contributing to the knowledge of another species. This highly successful program not only underlines the value of managed wetlands to various and unexpected wildlife species, but also how the commitment and dedication of one DNR employee can have a large impact on sustaining a declining species.

One area of South Carolina where barn owls live is in the marsh areas of the coast, especially in the old rice field impoundments of the Low Country managed for waterfowl. DNR has a barn owl nest box program that began in the early 1990s almost single-handedly by Mark Spinks, a Natural Resource Technician with the Coastal Seabird and Shorebird Program. Incidents of barn owls nesting in the observation towers overlooking the impoundments had been reported since the 1930's when a barn owl nested in the Horsehead Creek Tower at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). After hearing a casual remark from a shorebird researcher regarding the possibility of attracting barn owls by placing nest boxes on existing towers overlooking the impoundments, Mark acted, and utilizing his carpentry skills built nest boxes which he placed on the Cape Tower at the Santee Coastal Reserve, the Santee Bay Tower at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve (near Georgetown), and observation towers at the privately owned Annandale and Rochelle Plantations. Today this unique habitat of tidally managed freshwater marshes is host to 33 barn owl nest boxes with an occupancy rate of 86%. These nest boxes overlook marsh at the Yawkey Center, the Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Murphy Island, Cedar Island, and the Santee Delta. In 2010 the barn owl nest box program was expanded to Bear Island and Donnelly WMA's. Last season 9 of the 11 nest boxes at Bear Island and Donnelly were used.

Not only does the current program provide nesting and roosting sites for the barn owl, but researchers have been able to confirm from analysis of barn owl pellets the presence of a meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) species. The meadow vole, a small mammal about 5 -7 inches long, seems to only exist below the North Carolina and Virginia border in approximately 16 miles of South Carolina coast, and researchers question if it may be a subspecies like one that occurs on the Florida Gulf Coast. In a recent analysis of barn owl pellets from Murphy Island, Cedar Island, and Rochelle Plantation, the meadow vole was identified as 63% of the barn owl diet.

The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a mysterious and seldom seen bird of prey inhabiting South Carolina. It prefers to forage in open grassland areas, and it nests in cavities. South Carolina is a largely rural state with approximately 15 million of its 19 million acres still in farm and forest land. In 1950, there were 147,000 farms with 12,200,000 acres. Pastureland comprised 489,000 of those acres – plenty of habitat to attract barn owls to forage and nest in human-made structures such as barns, sheds, and silos. But by 2013 the number of South Carolina farms was reduced to 24,800 consisting of 4,970,000 acres. With the loss of suitable habitat, barn owl populations declined, and the barn owl is currently listed in the South Carolina Wildlife Action Plan as a species of conservation concern.

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