A girl enters a bird ecology room at Lausanne University, carrying a large cardboard box with holes. She opens the box and gently takes a bird – a young male barn owl. She explains to her audience that this particular barn owl is just about to come of age and and should leave its nest in a matter of days. At Lausanne University, a special scientific group studies the ecology and evolution of these owls, breeding them and tagging each bird before releasing them to monitor their movements and behavior.
Birds know no boundaries – a very common metaphor in our fragmented and divided world. But one species of bird, namely the barn owl, has by circumstance became a diplomat.
The barn owl (Tyto alba) is not a favorite among superstitious people. Around the world, and in some parts of the Balkans, there´s a belief that seeing this owl is a bad omen. There´s also the belief that they bring disease, even death, and that anyone who hears the voice of the barn owl will remain deaf. Our fascination with birds as different creatures has created a number of beliefs, and owls, being nocturnal, sometimes become victims of superstition and misconception.
A cosmopolitan admired by the Pope
The barn owl is a cosmopolitan. It is the most widespread landbird species in the world, found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. Its range includes all of Europe, most of Africa with the exception of the Sahara, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands and North, Central and South America.
The barn owl is a friend of man: it feeds on rodents which, in turn, helps farmers to protect their crops. In some countries, barn owls are used as controllers of rodent populations in the fields, rather than rodenticides. The use of nest boxes, where the barn owl can breed and live are are set up in close proximity to farm fields. One such project is the cooperation between Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli farmers, a true example of diplomatic cooperation, in order to achieve the common objective – increasing the yield.
Pope Francis and professor Roulin, source: Twitter
Dr. Alexandre Roulin, a professor from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Lausanne University, coordinates these projects. Roulin is otherwise concerned with the ecology, evolution and genetics of the species Tyto alba, and his work has gained the unexpected attention of Pope Francis. Intrigued by the project in which owls bring together peoples in conflict, Pope Francis received representatives from the communities in conflict as well as Professor Roulin. Thus, these birds, superstitiously thought to be of the wicked are unwittingly turned into a symbol of peace.
Love, divorce and negotiation
There are a few things about barn owls that most people aren't familiar with. The species has two forms – those that are completely white in color and those that have red, rusty feathers and a whole series of variations between the two. An interesting fact is that the white variety is mostly found in southern Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, while the red variety is mostly found in northern Europe and North America. Between North and South there are transient varieties. These owls, like other owls, can fly noiselessly thanks to special adjustments on flight feathers, but during the night, the whiteness of the southern variety is very visible, making noiseless flight necessary in catching rodents.
Scientists have wondered if the color of the owl´s feathers make a difference to their prey whilst hunting and research has shown that rodents become paralyzed when they see an owl approaching, regardless of the owl´s color.
Alexandre Roulin´s research team observed that females may have mottled plumage or be spotless, but that the spotted females are far more successful in reproduction. Male owls seem to favour them, as if they were “better” and their offspring having a greater chance of survival. There seems to be a natural choice on this basis. It has been shown that the genes involved in the production of melanin, which is responsible for “spotting” are associated with some other beneficial traits, such as a better immune system in the spotted female variety.
Barn owls are mostly a monogamous species, and males are concerned with the offspring, bringing food to the nest. Females are known to make “adventures”, but generally, the couples remain together. However, problems can also occur in this paradise and it sometimes lead to „divorce“. “This happens mainly if there are problems with the nest or the young die, ” Professor Roulin points out. When reproductive success is low, there are altercations which eventually lead to a “divorce“.
Barn owls make rather large nests and lay multiple eggs (from two to nine), making the brood quite difficult to feed. Some birds progress faster and some slower. In the animal world, it is often the case that stronger eject the weak from the nest, but that´s not the case in barn owls. They develop very specific cooperative behaviors and “negotiate” who will receive their food next. On these occasions, the young owls give each other a say and don´t interrupt the “speaker.” In fact, they seem have a real dialogue, which is sometimes difficult on a human level.
It is these negotiating skills that make the barn owls diplomats and their participation in cooperative projects in the Middle East is more than symbolic.
Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.