Sandy’s Garden ... The Tawny Owl Survey

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I do not think I have ever seen a tawny owl in the wild.

I have seen them in aviaries, of course, and I am sure I have seen them in demonstrations by experienced raptor handlers during public events. But I am pretty certain I have never seen … or heard … a tawny owl in, or near, my garden or anywhere else in the wild for that matter.

I am surprised to learn, from the website of the Scottish Raptor Study Group … … that, in the words of Keith Kirk, “The tawny owl is the most abundant owl in Scotland, commonly found in many parts of the mainland and the Inner Hebrides although apparently absent from the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles. Despite the fact that it is nocturnal and therefore more often heard than seen, the hooting call of the tawny owl actually makes it one of the most familiar species of British birds.”

Well, well. And, gentle reader, in case you are wondering why I have this sudden interest in a bird which I have never heard seen or heard in or near my garden, the reason is that I heard an item in a radio programme about a survey currently being undertaken by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) … ... to learn more about this raptor. The Trust is asking volunteers the length and breadth of the British Isles to look and, more obviously where a nocturnal bird is concerned, to listen for these birds to find out where they are; whether their numbers are increasing or declining compared with previous surveys; to discover if climate change is affecting them in any discernible way; and to report their observations to the BTO.

The BTO website describes the tawny owl in these words: “The tawny owl is an owl the size of a pigeon. It has a rounded body and head, with a ring of dark feathers around its face surrounding the dark eyes. It is mainly reddish brown above and paler underneath. … The tawny owl is a species that favours woodland habitats, but it may also breed in larger rural and suburban gardens. … The territorial hooting call of a male tawny owl is probably the most familiar of UK owl calls, beginning with a drawn out ‘hooo’, followed by a brief pause, before a softer ‘hu’ and then a resonant final phrase of ‘huhuhuhooo.’ This final phrase has a strong vibrato quality to it. The female’s usual call is ‘keewik’, which is used as a contact call.”

Yes, I know, it’s not too easy to describe a bird call in words: but there are recordings of the tawny owl’s cries on the BTO website; and they are quite distinctive cries, particularly since they are usually heard during darkness. The owls are most likely to be seen near woodland but can also be found in parks and in large gardens; and, of course, their cries can be heard for some distance around any of their preferred habitats. The best time to hear them is between sunset and midnight when they are abroad in quest of food, hunting a wide variety of small mammals, birds, frogs, reptiles and even fish, with larger insects, earthworms and snails sometimes included in the food shopping list. They have been known to take goldfish from gardens ponds, although a good skin of Scottish ice will prevent this!

I confess that I doubt if I shall take up the suggestion that I could participate in the study … albeit to report not hearing them, for it’s as important to know where they are not as it is to know where they are … by lying in my bed with the window open on a cold, damp, winter night. But you may be more amenable to that suggestion than I. Happy listening.