What Was The Barn Owl Called Before Barns Were Invented?
Our Facebook group is a never-ending source of delight. From the stunning photographs by some very talented people to the lovely stories about helping birds that visit their gardens the members are (mostly) a very friendly bunch of bird lovers.
Every now and again though a post pops up that gives everyone a good laugh and so it was when some wag posted the age-old question, “What was the barn owl called before barns were invented?“
Teat, Dave, Steve and plain old Owl were popular choices as were Homeless and Barnless. Some even claimed that barns were named after the owl, which makes perfect sense to us.
Others suggested that it was called by its scientific name Tyto alba, a good guess but incorrect as barn owls were first described in 1769 by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, the Tyrolean physician and naturalist in his Anni Historico-Naturales, well after the invention of barns. The earliest examples of buildings equivalent to modern-day barns were developed in at least the 12th century.
Scopoli gave the barn owl the scientific name Strix alba, strix referring to a mythical owl-like creature believed to feed on human flesh and suck the blood of babies, and alba the Latin for ‘white’.
As more species of owls were described Strix began to be used solely for the typical owls, or true owls (Strigidae family), and the barn owl was given the new scientific name Tyto alba. Tyto is from the onomatopoeic Ancient Greek tyto for an owl, so Tyto alba can be directly translated as ‘white owl’. Somewhat confusingly, Tylo alba is part of a larger family of owl also called barn owls (Tytonidae family).
Not your typical owl
The main difference between true owls and barn owls is their physical appearance; barn owls have heart-shaped facial discs, dark eyes, and no ear tufts, whereas true owls have round facial discs, yellow or orange eyes, and many species have ear tufts. Other owls in the barn owl family include sooty owls, masked owls, and grass owls.
Owls of course have been living on our planet for millions of years, long before barns or humans entered the picture. The earliest known owl fossil belonging to the extinct genus Ogygoptynx was found in Colorado and dated from about 61 million years ago, just a few million years after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.
Barn owls first appear in the fossil record of Europe in the Middle Miocene, a sub epoch of the Miocene Epoch, that lasted from about 15.9 million to 11.6 million years ago. A giant barn owl fossil was found in Italy that dates from around 5 million years ago, and an early Tyto alba fossil was found in Morocco dating from the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary, around 2.58 million years ago.
The farmers' friend
Before the arrival of humans, barn owls would have lived in rock crevices, caves, cliff fissures, and hollow trees where many still reside today. But once farming in Britain arrived in around 3,500 BC and people began building haystacks and shelters for their animals, barn owls moved in.
The remains of barn owls have been discovered in several ancient human settlements including the Celtic Iron Age lake village of Glastonbury in Somerset, the Roman rural farmstead at Woodcutts in Dorset, and the Edenvale Cave complex in County Clare, Ireland, as well as sites throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas.
These manmade structures would have provided them with shelter and somewhere to nest, and given them easy access to prey, helping farmers by catching the mice and rats that lived in their barns.
Over the last century, with the change in agricultural practices, many of the barn owls’ traditional nesting sites have been lost. Wooden barns have been placed by more modern buildings or converted into houses, derelict buildings have been pulled down, and church towers, another favoured roosting spot for barn owls have been netted to stop birds damaging them.
This decline in nesting sites, coupled with the effects of organochlorine pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s meant there was a drop in barn owl numbers in the last century. However, recent conservation efforts such as providing suitable nest boxes for barn owls appears to have halted the trend.
A parliament of owls
Throughout history, and before the invention of barns, the barn owl has been known by many other names including monkey-faced owl, church owl, delicate owl, hissing owl, night owl, screech owl, rat owl, demon owl, ghost owl, and hobgoblin owl. The names refer to its call, appearance, habitat, or its spooky appearance when flying at night.
This was the same for many species of birds which had different names across different countries or even across regions within the same country.
In 1884 the International Ornithological Committee (IOC), an international group of ornithologists, was established, and it became responsible for organising the taxonomic names of birds as well as standardising common names.
In the 1990s the IOC formed separate regional sub-committees to provide an authoritative list, the IOC World Bird List, of the common names of birds in different languages. The French list was compiled in 1993 followed by the Spanish list in 1995. The English list was more complicated and took more than 15 years to negotiate and complete.
Although the barn owl is still referred to by its various old English names in many parts of the world. The IOC decided that Tyto alba should officially be known as the Western Barn Ow land its cousin Tyto furcate, as the American Barn Owl.