Screeches and hisses came out of little monkey-like faces of two barn owls Friday, as they were moved into their new home at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.
"I haven't heard that sound in a long time," exclaimed a delighted Jim Kalina, lead groundskeeper. "I used to have one when I was a kid."
The owls, who were born earlier this year at Willowbrook Wildlife Haven in Glen Ellyn, were part of a group of six released Friday at Fermilab and barns in Naperville and Bartlett by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District.
It's an effort to restore the population of barn owls, which used to swoop over Illinois prairie and farm fields at night hunting small rodents. Suburban sprawl took away the barns and cavity-laden trees they liked to nest in. And even on farms, modern grain-storage buildings are tightly sealed, keeping out the barn owls' favorite dinner and eliminating nesting sites. So now barn owls are listed by the state as "endangered."
The two birds were placed in a special wooden box near the roofline inside the barn, with a small screened hole looking outside. The birds will spend the weekend getting used to the interior of the 1910 Baumann barn. Monday the screen will be removed, and the birds can then fly anywhere they want, any time they want. They can nest in the box, on the rafters and beams, or anywhere they find a cavity in a tree.
But don't look for babies from these two. They are both male. Springbrook had an abundance of males hatch this year, said Dan Thompson, ecologist for the forest district.
Barn owls have short lives, usually less than two years. Raccoons reach into their nests in tree holes to scoop out the eggs and chicks. Great horned owls eat the young. They fly into the path of moving cars. And if there is nothing to eat ...
"That's one of the reasons this is a great opportunity," said Thompson. Much of Fermilab's 10 square miles has been restored to tall-grass prairie and oak savanna, meaning there should be plenty of field mice, voles and other rodents. Workers baited the barn with grass and bird seed to attract mice this week (workers will also hand-feed them dead mice a few more days.)
"They hang out where the food is. So do we all," said Rod Walton, Fermilab's ecologist.
The barn is left from when Illinois condemned farms and a small village to get the land for Fermilab, which opened in the early 1970s.
Fermilab is one of six Department of Energy laboratories that are also federal environmental research parks.
There is no guarantee the birds will stick around Fermilab, but chances are good if they like the barn, Thompson said. And next year, he hopes to bring more owls, including a female. If they find the barn a safe place to raise their young, more and more owls may call Fermilab home, he said.