Have you heard a tawny owl lately? The British Trust for Ornithology wants to know if you have. They think there are only 50,000 pairs left in the UK. A male in my garden calls ‘who?’ every afternoon from his hide-out in the oak tree.
Country folk in centuries past have been known to answer with their own name. Tawny owls once terrified people, who thought they were ghosts calling from the after-world. What they were hearing was the male canoodling up to the female, screeching, mewing, rattling, clicking, grunting and groaning. I have seen this display once or twice and it is hilarious as he raises his left wing, then his right, sidles closer along the branch, shrinking his plumage till he all but disappears then puffing it out like a feather football. What a magic male she must think. She trembles, and quivers all over. But first of all he must find her and attract her into his den. So:‘who?’ does mean: ‘is anyone there?’ It is also a warning to last year’s young to leave home for good.
If there is a female present she will answer ‘kerwick’ and the pair will duet at dusk as they establish their territory of about 70 acres around them. They are the most musical owl in Europe and they are singing right now so start listening and report back to the Project Owl page www.bto.org/owl to find out what to do.
One of the problems for owls is finding nest sites. Hollow trees are scarce. Foresters cut them down. So they use old squirrels’ dreys or crows’ nests, and the white eggs in March are exposed to predators. RSPB nest boxes overcome this problem. If all else fails they have been known to nest in buckets, or in rabbit burrows. These birds only breed successfully in good mouse/vole years and this coming season with its nut and berry crop should see a plague, so they will feast and multiply. In lean years tawny owls have been known to catch fish (tench, roach, perch, and goldfish have been recorded), 38 species of wild birds and 20 of mammals. Many owls eat earthworms, and beetles, which they dig out of the ground. They love to bathe and drink and are easily drowned in unguarded water troughs.
Are they dangerous to humans? Occasionally they have been known to attack people meddling with the nesting site, the most famous attack being on that of the bird photographer Eric Hosking, who lost an eye. I asked him about that when he came to our school to lecture and he told me it was his own silly fault for getting too close. He didn’t seem worried by the damage and could even wink with his glass eye. His photograph shows the furious female owl a split second before he lost his eye as she struggles out of a hollow oak tree. Tawnies are also called brown, wood, and even ‘ollering owls by older country folk. Sussex folk maintained that ‘when owls whoop much at night, then expect a fair tomorrow’.
As for their contribution to our culture, the quotes are many, from ‘the owl and the pussy-cat.’ to Shakespeare’s ‘and nightly sings the staring owl’, Gray’s ‘the moping owl does to the moon complain’ and Keats’ ‘Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers was a-cold.’ Punch had an apt saying too for the chattering classes: ‘There was an old owl lived in an oak, the more he heard the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Oh! If men were all like that wise bird!’