Ultimate guide to British owls

Reader's Digest Editors

Owls are among the most majestic of Britain's native wildlife. Here's what species to look out for near you. 

Tawny owls (Strix aluco)

a tawny owl spreading its wings

The position of every tree and branch in its territory is etched into the tawny owl's memory, enabling it to hunt efficiently and silently in dense woodland at night. Once established, it rarely moves from its patch.

As soon as a young tawny owl becomes independent, it must establish a territory of its own and maintain it against intruders. It probably has a remarkable spatial memory that allows it to learn the layout of the area and get around with maximum efficiency, taking as much prey as possible with the minimum of effort.

The birds’ diet can be studied fairly accurately by scrutinising their droppings. Tawny owls regurgitate pellets of undigested fur, bones and beetle wing cases.

A bird of copses and well-wooded parks and gardens as well as larger tracts of forest, the tawny owl is the most common owl over much of Britain, though absent from Ireland.

Like most owls, it hunts by night and roosts by day, but if hard-pressed for food at nesting time, it will hunt in broad daylight. At other times, a roosting owl is superbly camouflaged by its mottled plumage, but can sometimes be located by following noisy parties of smaller birds, especially jays, blackbirds and chaffinches, which seek out the predator and mob it. The owl may not be dislodged by their clamour, merely sitting out the onslaught—it is not disturbed easily even at the sight of a human. The owl’s astonishingly flexible neck allows it to turn its head almost full-circle so that its large, unblinking, black eyes can be kept focused on an observer moving around it.

When Shakespeare wrote down the call of the tawny owl as "tu-whit, tu-whoo—a merry note" he was, for once, being a poor naturalist. What he did was to combine two notes, the beautiful, breathy hoot, "hooo: hoo, hu, hoooo-oo-oo", which is the male’s song, and a loud, nasal, sharp "kee-wick", a call used by both sexes at dusk to keep in contact in the dark. Young birds in late summer have a more vibrant, or whining, version of the "kee-wick" call.

tawny owl

Nesting choices: The eggs are usually laid in a tree hole, but a pair may choose a convenient spot in a ruined building or on a cliff ledge, or take over a magpie’s nest, a squirrel’s drey or, in the absence of anywhere else suitable, a burrow in the ground. The female can be extremely fierce in defence of eggs or young. The owl will attack anything, or anyone, considered to be a threat, and its sharp talons can inflict serious wounds. The tawny owl lays March–May, sometimes earlier; usually 2–4 eggs, round and white; incubation 28–30 days, by female only; young, fed mainly by male, fly after 30–37 days.

Identification: Mottled brown, with round facial disc and dark brown eyes; distinctive "kee-wick" call and hooting song; sexes alike

Feeding: Small mammals, especially mice, voles, young rats and shrews; some birds; at times fish, frogs, molluscs, worms and insects.

Size: 38cm (15 inches)

 

Barn owl (Tyto alba)

barn owl

Distinctive golden and white plumage gives the barn owl an unearthly look. The sight of one quietly scanning the ground from a perch, or gliding noiselessly through the dusk, is mesmerising in its impact.

The ghostly form of a barn owl looks white when it is caught in the flash of a car’s headlights at night, quartering fields and meadows on softly feathered wings. In summer, though, when the bird needs extra food for its young, and towards the end of winter when food is so scarce that the bird is forced to hunt by day, its true colour can be seen—golden buff and ash grey above, with white underparts.

The owl’s buoyant, floating and briefly hovering hunting flight ends dramatically in a sudden noiseless swoop. To lose height as quickly as possible, the owl often folds its wings upwards and drops rapidly. At the last moment, it swings its powerful talons forward, ready to strike. The rodent quarry has no warning and is usually killed outright, and the owl, gripping it firmly with its talons, takes it away to eat.

When hunting, the barn owl does not rely on sight alone. Experiments have shown that it can locate its prey on a pitch-dark night by its sense of hearing. Its ears are placed asymmetrically on its head so that there is a fractional interval between the sounds picked up by each ear, and this gives it unusually precise powers of pinpointing the slightest sound.

barn owl flying

Shrieking cries: Although the barn owl is renowned for its ability to fly in almost total silence, there is nothing muffled about the male’s cry when he wants to attract a female or warn off a rival—a prolonged, strangled shriek. The female’s response is uttered much less frequently and tends to break off in a less tremulous scream. During aerial chases, the pair may duet in a noisy, caterwauling performance. Loud, wheezy or snoring noises mainly come from hungry young, but may sometimes emanate from courting adults.

Barn owls were once fairly common and their decline is something of a mystery. It began long before some other birds of prey were affected by the build-up of pesticides in their bodies. The loss of grassland for feeding has had an effect; and with fewer empty buildings and hollow trees around, nesting sites are less easy to find. The owls do not build nests but lay their eggs on a heap of pellets made up of the indigestible fur, feathers and bones of their prey.

Identification: Golden buff and ash grey above with white face and underparts; female slightly greyer.

Nesting: No nest material; eggs laid on disgorged pellets; sites include old barns, ruined buildings, church towers, hollow trees, quarry faces, corn-ricks and nest-boxes; laying recorded in every month except January, but main period is April–early May; 4–6 eggs, white; incubation about 33 days, by female only; nestlings, fed by both parents, fly after 9–12 weeks; often two broods.

Feeding: Shrews, mice, field voles, bank voles, water voles, brown rats, moles; small birds; beetles, moths; frogs, sometimes bats and fish.

Size: 34.25cm (131⁄2 inches)

 

Long-eared owl (Asio otus)

long eared owl

Indicators of excitement or alarm, purveyors of courtship messages, or camouflage aids the purpose of the long-eared owl's feather tufts may be any of these, but they have nothing to do with its hearing.

The long-eared owl’s real ears are concealed in the feathers on each side of its head, under the edge of the facial disc. Situated asymmetrically, they give it an acute directional hearing. The ear-like tufts on top of its head are simply elongated head feathers, which it can flatten at will, as it does in flight. As well as being useful for signalling, the tufts break up the owl’s distinctive silhouette when it roosts during the day.

Aided by the excellent camouflage of its streaky brown-grey plumage, the owl blends in with its surroundings perfectly as it sits quietly on a tree branch, flattening itself against the trunk. Even so, if smaller birds, which often make up part of its diet, happen to find one hiding in a tree, they will mob it mercilessly. At other times, the owl’s presence may be given away by pellets lying on the ground beneath a favourite roosting tree.

A recent study of the diet of long-eared owls in Northern Ireland showed that the long-tailed field mouse, or wood mouse, is easily its favourite food, supplemented by house mice, brown rats, pigmy shrews and various small birds.

Chased away: The bird breeds in many parts of the British Isles, although it is not common in Wales, the Midlands or southern England. This may be due to the presence of the tawny owl, which is the more dominant of the two species. A tawny owl has been known to drive off and even kill any long-eared owl that strays into its territory. In Ireland, where there are no tawny owls, the long-eared owl is well established.

a long eared owl with its baby

Normally, the long-eared owl chooses pinewoods, and its low, moaning hoot is one of the eeriest sounds of the woodland night. It also nests on heathland, dunes and marshes, and sometimes it searches for prey over open country.

The male has a special courtship display flight. He claps his wings together, then jumps up in the air. When angry, he threatens with outspread wings, hissing and snapping. As well as hooting, he has a barking call at breeding times, and the young have a hunger cry that sounds like the squeaking of an unoiled hinge.

The long-eared owl is normally strictly nocturnal, entering and leaving roosts at twilight, but it may fly during the day on migration. British breeders are largely sedentary but are joined from October to mid-May by winter visitors from northern Europe.

Identification: Long "ear" tufts; plumage buff with pale mottling and dark streaks; yellow eyes; sexes alike.

Nesting: Often uses old nest of magpie, raven or other crow, or a squirrel’s drey; sometimes builds on ground; lays March–April; 4 or 5 eggs, glossy white; incubation 25–28 days, by female only; young, fed by both parents, leave after about 25 days.

Feeding: Mice, rats, voles, shrews; finches, sparrows and, at times, birds as large as jays; some cockchafers and other beetles.

Size: 35.5cm (14 inches)

 

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)

short eared owl flies with wings out-stretched

The short-eared owl reverses a family trait by hunting in daylight. When resting, it can see all round by swivelling its head and its glaring yellow eyes deter many a potential intruder.

Although one of the scarcer of Britain’s owls, the short-eared owl is the easiest to spot because it hunts over open, treeless country in broad daylight as well as at dusk. It systematically quarters the ground, slowly and silently, alternating a few deep wing beats with long glides, listening for telltale rustles in the grass below.

The "ears" that give the owl its name are, in fact, merely small tufts of feathers, with no function as organs of hearing. Its real ears are hidden beneath its facial feathers. The owl’s mottled plumage gives it equally good cover while it rests on the ground or in a tree. Often its bright yellow eyes are the only indication of its presence.

At sunset and dusk in April and May, the short-eared owl patrols high over its territory in a display flight. It circles and hovers, giving its low, booming song, and glides on outspread wings. Then it suddenly twists its wings under its body so that the tips meet behind its tail, and rapidly claps them together a number of times.

As it claps its wings, the bird plunges like a stone, dropping a few metres before resuming its slow flight. Unusually among owls, the birds nest in a shallow scrape on the ground, sheltered by tall grass, reeds, heather and scrub. When short-tailed voles, the short-eared owl’s favourite prey, are plentiful, clutches are bigger than usual, up to 14 eggs. The owlets, vulnerable to the predations of crows and foxes, grow quickly.

short eared owl looks into camera

Favourite food: It has been calculated that a single short-eared owl may eat as many as 2,000 voles in four months. A good supply of these rodents is the main factor controlling the bird’s distribution. Periodically, vole plagues break out in hilly districts—sometimes with devastating effects on grass crops—and then short-eared owls rapidly move in to breed. If there are enough voles, the owls will raise two broods.

The spread of plantations of conifers, an ideal habitat for voles, helped the short-eared owl to increase and extend its range southward to moorland in Yorkshire and North Wales, but this process seems to have gone into reverse. It does, however, breed regularly in East Anglia.

In winter the owls tend to move south, where voles may be easier to find and are joined by migrants from northern Europe, especially along the east coast of England. Some of these stay while others are just passing through on their way farther south. Some go as far as central Africa. In years when breeding has been successful and numbers have increased, short-eared owls may be seen on coastal marshes and on rough grassland and dunes in central and southern England and South Wales.

Identification: Buff-brown plumage with streaked breast; black patches under long, rounded wings; sexes alike.

Nesting: Nest is a depression in the ground, lined with vegetation; lays April; usually 4–8 eggs, white, almost spherical; incubation about 26 days, by female only; nestlings, fed by female on food brought by male, leave after about 15 days, fly about 11 days later; sometimes two broods.

Feeding: Chiefly short-tailed voles and other small mammals; small birds; insects.

Size: Male: 35.5cm (14in) Female: 42cm (161⁄2in)

 

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