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Photo by Mack Russell Photography, Greenville, AL
AWCA President Charles Kennedy inspects small bones on the floor of a silo. These remnants of digestion are the best evidence of the presence of barn owls. Project Silo prefers to use silos that have actually been used by barn owls.

Project Silo is Working to Provide Salvation for Barn Owls

By Kellie Henderson


Like the small family farms of yester-year, the barn owl has seen a decline in numbers across the United States, but one group of avian enthusiasts is working to bring these birds salvation in the form of silos.

According to Alabama Wildbird Conservation Association (AWCA) President Charles Kennedy, what began as an attempt to locate barn owls on bird watching excursions grew into a project that has provided dozens of nesting sites in the state.

"We’d take a group out bird watching and every time we’d pass a silo we’d seek permission to watch for barn owls roosting there. We’d see evidence the owls were trying to nest inside but failing because the structures don’t provide sufficient support for nesting. As a result, we often found eggs scattered over the ground where they’d fallen or been eaten by predators," said Kennedy.

"And since people are building better structures for grain storage now, we’ve been fortunate people are willing to make their abandoned silos available to barn owls," he continued.

In addition to the donation of silos, the AWCA seeks financial support and volunteers to aid in the installation of these nesting boxes.

"So far we’ve built dozens of the structures, but not nearly as many as we’d like because it’s fairly expensive. Buying the materials, building and installing support structures and transporting them to the silo costs a couple hundred dollars for each house. The platform to support it alone can cost as much as a hundred dollars to construct," he stated.

"We tried several approaches to building and installing the boxes and the support systems they need. We eventually got the kinks worked out, but rarely are two situations the same," explained Kennedy.

Because of the cost, Kennedy said they try to carefully screen volunteered silos before actually traveling to the site where one stands.

"Most silos in our state were built in the 1920s on small dairy farms. Often they have rotted wooden roofs and are filled with water or garbage or both. And most are difficult to enter and exit as we work. Two people can do an installation, but three or four generally work better, so we try to use volunteers from the surrounding area to help," he said.

"Most of the silos we’ve built nesting boxes for are within 100 miles of Greenville or Montgomery. As long as we have unused silos in the immediate area, we feel like that’s the best use of our resources," he said.

But Kennedy also has bigger dreams for the future.

"We’d like to eventually see a group of people from the Birmingham area learn to build these nesting boxes and find funds and volunteers in another part of the state," he said.

According to Kennedy, the barn owl’s natural habitat is old-growth hollow trees and caves, but because of current timber management practices the owls have been driven to areas unsuitable for nesting, like hay lofts, bel-fries and, of course, silos. He added barn owls can be of particular benefit to farmers with pest problems 

Photo by Mack Russell Photography, Greenville, AL
An example of the most common silo found in the project area. When these silos are located in good barn owl habitat, there are usually owls roosting in them. All of the nest box installations are in silos similar to this one.

Photo by Mack Russell Photography, Greenville, AL
Project Silo volunteers Tommy Russell (left) and Louis Adair measure the silo entrance to see if the owl house will fit inside, one of the first steps in placing nesting boxes. The entrance hole must be at least 20 in. x 20 in.

because their diet consists almost exclusively of mice, voles and rats. But Kennedy noted the area around a barn owl’s nest can be rather messy.

"You wouldn’t want one in your attic, but they can certainly be a help in livestock areas and near orchards that have rodent problems," he admitted.

In addition to Project Silo, the AWCA has several other projects underway including their newest venture to provide nesting boxes for American Kestrels.

"We placed the first Kestrel house in late November on the state Capital to provide a more suitable home for Kestrel’s attempting to nest in the gutter of the Capital," he said.

But Kennedy also admitted he sees why Project Silo has become so popular.

"It is our most colorful project, and those old silos are kind of romantic and picturesque," he said.

Kennedy stated while the AWCA does not have a paid membership, the number of people currently receiving their newsletter is between 600 and 700.

"We began as a group of recreational birdwatchers and eventually evolved to more of a conservation group, so we wanted a name that reflected what we’re about," said Kennedy. The group was formerly known as the South Alabama Birding Association.

For more information on Project Silo or any other information about AWCA, visit www.bamabirds.com.

Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006