I heard a Tawny Owl last night. A nocturnal foray to my local store interrupted by an eerie, frightfully abrupt, yet oddly soothing shriek from the branches of a Sycamore in the local churchyard. A sound which I hear often, both in the countryside and closer to home, amid the houses of Bedlington, that never fails to stop me dead in my tracks. Haunting, to such an extent that it must surely have raised a few eyebrows in prehistory – when our ancestors, absent the comforts of modern life, still had reason to fear what lurked in the dark of our woods and other wild places. I am quite fond of the Tawny Owl.
In keeping with the season – when owls begin to vocalise more frequently as they sure up their territorial boundaries ahead of Spring – and with recent promises made on this blog to talk more of nature, and animals themselves. I thought I would put together a list of facts about this abundant yet seldom seen nocturnal hunter. For fun, mainly, but also as a brief tribute to what is, without a doubt, one of Britain’s most eye-catching and truly fascinating species.
- Mistaken identity. The famed and often (wrongly) cited “twit twoo” call of the Tawny Owl does not actually exist, stemming instead from the work of Shakespeare. Who cemented the myth in popular culture with his renowned ‘Love’s Labours Lost‘. The sound actually comes from the back and forward conversing of male and female owls: from the sharp “kewick” of the female and the longer, more drawn out, hooting of the male birds.
- A violent streak. Unlike the flimsier Barn Owl and the much more reclusive Long-Eared, Tawny Owls are not a bird to be trifled with. As shown by their ability to oust other species from nest boxes; from widely discussed territorial attacks on people and their ability to take prey species up the size of a rabbit. A violent streak renowned wildlife photographer Eric Hosking experienced first hand when, in 1937, he clambered up to a welsh bird hide and was blinded in his left eye by a particularly feisty owl.
- Liquid aversion. Unlike Britain’s migratory owls – our “eared” species, principally – Tawny Owls appear to show an aversion to water. And are rarely observed crossing any substantial water body. This being the reason that the species stands absent from many of our islands – from Shetland, Orkney and the Isle of Wight to name but a few – and, more famously, why they remain absent from Ireland. Where in their absence, the Long-Eared Owl has become particularly abundant.
- Copycat. It is incredibly easy to mimic the call of a Tawny Owl by simply blowing through cupped hands. With a study finding that almost 90% of male owls can be tempted into responding this way. Note: Jays too have been known to copy the characteristic call of the Tawny, with some suggesting that they do so as a means of locating the birds during the day, in order to mob them.
- Avian assassins. We commonly associate the diet of owls with voles, mice and other small furry creatures, though the diet of the Tawny Owl is, in fact, an incredibly broad one. In urban areas in particular, birds form a large portion of owl diet; with species such as Starling and Blackbird taken frequently. Although birds as large as an adult Mallard and Kittiwake have been reported taken by owls. And tawny owls have also been known to kill and eat both Little and Long-Eared Owls. Often persecuting their smaller kin to such an extent that the species cannot coexist within areas of suitable habitat.
- Bad tidings. Historically, the Tawny Owl (and other owl species) was viewed as a harbinger of bad tidings. Associated with everything from witchcraft to the looming threat of death. This negative view of owls continuing for some time, demonstrated by the following, rather breif, verse by Sir Walter Scott: Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl, Leave the sick man to his dream, All night long he heard your scream. An owl, likely a Tawny Owl, also featured as an omen of death in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth“.
- Surprise finds. Recently, a ring from Tawny Owl was recovered in Iceland – something which, at a glance, appeared to contrast with usually sedentary nature of the species. However, it later turned out that the ring had been collected from a dead owl by a birder who, in keeping with the quirky style of those of an avian persuasion, then attached the ring to his binoculars. Before traveling to Iceland, where the strap on his equipment broke and the ring was lost and later recovered. Source: BTO.
- Turning tables. The Tawny Owl may rule the night here in Britain, but the species has been found to feature in the diet of a number of other creatures. Among these: diurnal raptors such as Buzzards, Goshawks and eagles, as well as Eagle Owls, Foxes and large mustelids. With the eggs and chicks of owls also vulnerable to predation; from rats, squirrels, and even domestic animals. Life for a Tawny Owl is not at all easy.
- Hill Hooter. Across its range in the UK, the Tawny Owl goes by a host of different names. With comical terms such as “hill hooter” and “screetch owl” commonplace, and others such as “ivy owl” and “beech owl” used to describe the bird at roost during the day. Derived from the tendency of owls to conceal themselves amid tangles of leaves or within trees in order to disguise themselves from predators.
- Kinslaying. Tawny Owls boast an incredibly high level of juvenile mortality, due to a host of factors including prey shortages and predation. Many young owls, however, are also killed by their own parents – as resident owl pairs, desperate to hold on to areas of suitable habitat, attempt to drive out their young. Some studies have shown that up to two-thirds of owls die this way in some years.
Wonderful header image credited to Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.net, under the wiki creative commons.