Do the rare barn owls still nest in Howard County? David Pardoe and the Audubon Society Central Maryland chapter hope to have an answer by the end of March.

Pardoe approached the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. last year with the idea of installing barn owl nesting boxes on transmission towers along the company's rights of way here. The company agreed to the project, and earlier this month, BG&E employees, with the help of Audubon volunteers, installed 10 boxes about 30 feet up on towers around the county.

The owls favor the high perch because they're protected and can scout their prey, said Pardoe, chairman of the chapter's wildlife committee. If any owls are in the area, Pardoe said, "We'll know it in early spring when they begin to stake out breeding territory."

During the past five years, prime nesting places for barn owls have been disappearing, and so have the barn owls. Fewer barns and silos mean less sheltered space, and fewer pastures mean less hunting ground for the birds. The barn owl population is dropping "drastically as the county changes from rural to suburban," Pardoe said. No barn owls have been seen in the chapter's spring bird count since 1980.

Another species of bird that the society is trying to protect in the county is the kestrel, also known as the sparrow hawk, which nests primarily in dead trees and whose breeding ground has been diminishing as trees are cleared away for development or aesthetics.

The society has erected 20 boxes, designed to house kestrels on the backs of highway directional signs in the county. The kestrel isn't endangered, Pardoe said, "but there should be more of them."

The Audubon chapter has been active since 1985, when members began a bluebird box project with the Maryland Department of Highways, installing 350 of the boxes on directional signs along I-70 in Howard County.