Image: Tawny owl in UK woodlands

The call of a male tawny owl is one of the most recognisable bird calls. During late autumn and winter, if you’re lying awake at night you may be lucky enough to hear the familiar ‘hoo hoooo’ sound echoing outside your window.

Male tawny owls use their call to proclaim their territory and communicate with other owls. The ‘twit too’ sound associated with owls is actually the noise created by a male and female calling to each other. The female call is a high-pitched ‘kewick’ sound, and the male responds with a low ‘hooo’. Put these together and it sounds like ‘twit-twoo’!

When a male and female tawny do get together, they usually mate for life, typically raising a small family of two or three owlets in spring. The pair will fiercely defend their territory throughout the year – usually an area of up to 20 hectares (almost 30 football pitches if you’re struggling to visualise that!).

Image: Tawny owl in flight

In Western culture, owls are thought of as being wise creatures – and are often depicted as such in films and books. Indeed, the collective noun for owls is a ‘Parliament’ – presumably as you’d expect those running the country to have a good degree of intelligence. However, the ‘wise owl’ image has been disputed by scientists. Although adept at hunting, owls are not known to have the problem-solving skills exhibited by other species such as Corvids.

Perhaps the attribution of intelligence originally came about as the result of the owl’s steely stare. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an owl stare then you do feel as if the bird is giving you its undivided attention. However, the focussed stare is largely down to the fact that an owl’s eyes are fixed within its eye sockets – so to look around it needs to turn its neck. An owl’s neck is fabulously flexible to allow it to explore its surroundings, and capable of rotating 270 degrees.

Tawny owls are nocturnal, hunting throughout the night and roosting during the daytime. Using its highly sensitive eyesight and hearing, the bird will scan the woodland floor for prey such as voles and mice and swoop down from its perch to seize them. The victims are often completely unaware due to the owl’s silent flight, which is made possible thanks to special adaptations on its feathers.

A tawny owl’s preferred habitat is broadleaf woodland (characterised by trees without needles, such as oak, beech and birch), and it creates its nest in a tree cavity or sometimes an old crow’s nest or squirrel drey.

Tawnies are devoted parents and will feed their young for two or three months (a timescale in which some other bird species would have squeezed in raising two broods!). The owlets leave the nest after around five weeks, but then spend the next month or two sitting in the branches around the nest, while the parents still attentively feed them.

At the 12-week stage the parental feeding stops, and the youngsters are forced to establish their own independence. Finding a territory for themselves is one of the biggest challenges facing a young owl – territories are fiercely defended and not easily given up. Noisy territorial activity amongst owls increases in early autumn and throughout winter, when young birds seek to establish territories of their own, and this is why you’re more likely to hear them at this time of year.

Image: UK Tawny owl

Due to their nocturnal lifestyles and fantastic camouflage, it's notoriously difficult to spot a tawny owl during the day, although if you’re really lucky you might spot one roosting high up in a tree hollow. Something you’re more likely to come across though is an owl pellet. This is a small grey mass containing the regurgitated remains of the owl’s diet that it cannot digest – such as the fur and bones of its small mammal prey. A tawny owl will produce about two of these a night and they can be found around its favourite roosting spots. Dissecting an owl pellet will provide a fascinating insight into what the bird has been feeding upon.

It is thought that there are around 50,000 breeding pairs of tawny owls in the UK, although population monitoring of this species is a challenge because of its nocturnal habit. The tawny is probably the most common type of owl in Bedfordshire, and the species has been recorded previously at the Millennium Country Park. If you're lucky enough to see or hear one on our sites then please let us know!

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