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British Owls Need Your Ears

Birds of prey are some of the UK’s most majestic animals and owls hold a special place in many of our hearts. British owls face ongoing challenges with changes to nesting sites, hunting habitats, populations levels of their prey and light pollution. The British Trust for Ornithology is currently running a survey to identify the distribution of Tawny Owls and they need our help…

tawny owlOwls hold a certain mystery, perhaps because of their largely nocturnal habits. No-one will ever forget an encounter they may have had, when the ghost-like form of a barn owl swoops across their path at dusk. It is a magical and enchanting moment. Children are fascinated by owls, particularly with their ability to turn their heads seemingly almost all the way round (in fact the turn is up to 270 degrees, but still impressive!). Owls are portrayed as wise characters, including the character Owl in Winnie the Pooh who wears reading glasses and presents himself as a teacher and mentor.

The British Trust for Ornithology is asking for the public’s help in identifying the distribution of Tawny Owls. The idea is to explore the impact of artificial light pollution and other aspects of urbanisation on the likelihood of hearing Tawny Owls. At the same time, the study will also look at seasonal changes in Tawny Owl calling behaviour more generally and see if urbanisation plays a role in this too.

The study began last autumn, but it is not too late to take part. You simply need to listen out for the call of Tawny Owls (the well-known ‘Twit-Twoo’ call) for a 20-minute period between sunset and midnight at least one evening between now and 31 March 2019 (or weekly between now and then if you are able). You can listen from your garden, local park or woodland. You can even listen whilst lying in bed with the window open! All information is valuable, even zero counts (you'll be a #zerohero!).

To find out the details and how to take part visit the BTO website at

While taking part, you might enjoy these must-know owl facts:

  • There are five common owl species in the UK: Tawny Owl, Long-Eared Owl, Barn Owl, Little Owl and Short-Eared Owl. Snowy and Eagle Owls also occur, but it's much rarer to spot them.
  • Not all species of owls make the ‘Twit-Twoo’ call, the classic call that children associate with owls. Twit-Twoo is actually a combined duet call between male and female Tawny Owls; the female makes a 'kee-wick’ contact call whilst the male replies with a hooting ‘hooo’ sound. This duet continues fairly seamlessly, sounding like Twit-Twoo in its duet form. By contrast, the Barn Owl is not a particularly vocal species and the drawn-out screech of the male Barn Owl is only likely to be heard during the early stages of the breeding season.
  • barn ownBarn Owls rely almost entirely on stealth. BBC Winterwatch fans will have seen the 2019 Winterwatch trial of Barn Owl vs. Kestrel. In one part of the competition, sensitive microphones were set up to record the level of sound generated when the birds were in flight. Amazingly, even when the barn owl flapped its wings directly above the microphone, the sound was barely detectable. This allows Barn Owls to fly over grassland almost silently and take their prey by surprise.
  • Although not native to Britain (having been introduced in the 1870s), the Little Owl is now breeding across much of England and parts of Wales and Scotland. This bird is not much bigger than a Song Thrush making it the smallest of our owls, but it is chunky and cuddly in appearance.
  • While the distinguishing feature of the wise-looking Long-Eared Owl is its long ear-tufts, these aren't actually ears at all, but feathers that help make the owl look bigger when alarmed. This owl is tall and thin and is similar in size to a Wood Pigeon.
  • Short-Eared Owls nest on the ground in upland moorland and grassland and make nests in grass, reeds or heather. They are active during the day and can often be seen flying low over moorland and marshland in search of potential prey.
  • There is some overlap in the diets in our owl species, but they each have their favoured prey and hunting methods. Tawny Owls generally hunt from a perch and ambush their prey; mostly bank voles, wood mice, field voles and shrews. Little Owls also often hunt from a perch, taking small mammals and large invertebrates, including earthworms, cockchafers and other beetles. Barn owls have exceptional hearing and hunt on the wing listening for prey – quartering along hedgerows and grassland in their search for field voles, bank voles, shrews, mice, rats and small birds. Long-Eared Owls also hunt their prey by quartering – flying low over the ground looking for prey. Field voles make up as much as 80% of the diet of Short-Eared Owls and so, understandably, population numbers of the owls and the voles usually follow the same trends.
  • After digesting their food, owls regurgitate hard pellets of compressed bones, fur, teeth, feathers, and other materials they couldn't digest. Ornithologists study those pellets to learn more about an owl's diet.
  • Owls have zygodactyl feet with two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward, and all their toes have sharp talons. This gives the birds a stronger, more powerful grip, so they can be more effective predators.
  • Ancient civilizations had widely divergent opinions about owls. The Greeks chose owls to represent Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but Romans were terrified of them, considering them bearers of ill omens. The ancient Egyptians had a kinder view of owls, believing that they protected the spirits of the dead as they travelled to the underworld.

17 February 2019

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