This, our commonest nocturnal raptor, is now at its most vocal. One of our earliest birds to think about breeding, snow-covered woods and hedgerows are now ringing with its familiar calls . . .
Survival rather than mating is currently the name of the game for most birds, but Britain’s commonest owl has other things on its mind. Our woods, field and gardens are beginning to echo with the familiar calls of ‘Too-whit, too-whoo’.
Originally a woodland hunter, it has readily taken to suburban gardens where the mixture of shrubs, trees and grass mimics the forest edge. This adaptability has allowed it to expand its range to almost the whole of the mainland since the last war and it is now only absent from a handful of offshore islands.
Although well camouflaged, with its rusty-brown plumage and the silent flight of all owls, they are comparatively easy to find, not least because of the noise. In mid-winter this fiercely solitary bird is at its noisiest, hooting loudly to proclaim ownership of a breeding territory. The male’s principal call is a ‘whoooo, whooooo, whoooo’ and some experts believe the classic ‘tooo-whit, tooo-whooo’ comes from a pair responding almost instantly to each other. The other, equally distinctive, call is a shriller ‘keee-wick!’
This makes them easy to track down by torchlight, although they can also be found by day with a little fieldcraft (follow the angry alarm calls of mobbing birds – jays and magpies are particularly vocal).
Like all owls, tawnies prey mainly on small rodents, but they are bigger and more voracious than our other four species (little, barn, short- and long-eared) and are quite prepared to take adult rats and small rabbits. Generally these are dropped on from a perch, but they are not above snatching roosting birds which may explain why they are mobbed so relentlessly.
In late spring the female builds a nest, ideally in a hollow bough, but an old crow’s nest or squirrel’s drey will suffice. Two to five eggs are laid at two day intervals and incubation starts immediately. This means the oldest chick can be over a week old before the youngest emerges. Provided the parents can supply enough food all is well, but should the oldest feel the pinch, then its younger siblings are no more than useful protein.
Not surprisingly the youngsters bale out of the nest at the earliest opportunity, usually well before they can fly. At first they skulk on nearby branches or in the undergrowth, calling lustily whenever a parent returns. This habit gives rise to numerous reports of ‘abandoned’ owlets in late spring.
Much the best option is not only to leave the chick alone, but to quit the general area. Adult tawny owls are extremely protective and are not above attacking humans. Indeed, the great nature photographer, Eric Hoskings, lost an eye while attempting a nest shot.