Although in no way as plentiful as the tawny owl, the barn owl is most likely seen much more often than the commoner species. This is not merely because of its preference for human haunts-from farm barns to village belfries-for roosting and nesting, but additionally on account of its feeding habits.
For this quarters the open fields, instead of woodland, looking for prey and, specifically in late winter, may often begin its forays in the dim daylight of the afternoon. It’s even more apt to be seen in daylight during the evenings throughout May and June, when the protracted business of rearing young is within full swing. Then, once the location of the feeding-beat has been seen as, the hunter (or hunters, since some, recognisably different in plumage, is going to be involved) could be watched at leisure.
The hunting way is fairly constant: a leisurely, buoyant flight just a few feet above the herbage, now and then billowing up to twenty feet approximately, as if to achieve impetus for the next run; occasional hesitant wavering, sometimes developing into momentary winnowing hovers; a propensity to follow the field boundaries, whether hedges, walls or railway embankments; and the final moment when sight gets control from hearing in the location of the prey and there’s a rapid shoot downward with legs to the fore with wings extended but cupped forward.
Whether the latter position, which always appears to accompany the kill, is just an essential manoeuvre for abrupt braking, or whether or not this may muffle any attempt for escape on the a part of the prey, is uncertain. Another interesting point, which can be clearly observed on such daylight patrols, is the fact that the short tail is fanned to form a continuing flying surface with the wings, and it is apparently little used like a rudder; the long legs, however, extended behind, are always in motion, and obviously function as steerage organs.
On such occasions one could possibly get close-up views of the delicately patterned colour of the upper surface- basically a pale golden buff, stippled with minute points of grey, monochrome. The female normally has darker stippling, which is often heavy enough to advise a lavender-grey bloom dusted over the underlying buff. But the most striking look at all is a barn owl approaching the observer at eye-level; then the large head completely blots out the comparatively small body, and all sorts of one sees is the unique heart-shaped face-pure white, black-eyed and outlined having a ridge of stiff dark feathers-suspended between two long wings.
The name ‘white owl’ is suitable only when this bird sometimes appears at dusk (or floodlit in the beam of the motorist’s headlamps), for then only its pure white underparts appear. At such times, in the face-to-face view mentioned previously, the eerie apparition could be that of a disembodied face silently floating towards one. These ghostly appearances, coupled with the hair-raising screech and its churchyard associations, have tended to provide this useful parishioner an undeservedly sinister reputation.