BRITISH OWL SPECIES

Everything you need to know about the main species of British owl including information on identification, calls, pellets, nest boxes for owls and conservation advice.

 

BARN OWL

The BARN OWL (Tyto alba) is the white farmland owl that appears ghostly in flight as it hunts silently over areas of rough unmanaged grassland. It is a small mammal specialised that has evolved to hunt for its primary prey, field voles, using it’s hearing. This specialisation makes the barn owl vulnerable to changes to it’s environment and this is one of the main factors for its decline in the UK.

Over many centuries the Barn Owl has been the farmers friend and was the countryman's constant companion. It was also the guardian of virtually every village church, and no barn was complete without one.

Now, it is sad to say, that the British population has plummeted to such an extent due to the intensification of farmland that in many areas of the country present day children know the bird only from posters and greeting cards.

The barn owl has been known by a variety of names over the centuries such as white owl, white hootlet, yellow owl, dylluan wen, screech owl, scritch owl, hissing owl, screaming owl, common owl, roarer, berthuan, Billy wise, Billy wix, Billy whit, cherubim, gill howter, gillihowlett, gil-hooter, gilly owlet, hoolet, hullart, hobby owl, Jenny howlet, Jenny owl, Madge howlett, Madge owl, moggy, padge, pudge, pudge owl, oolert, owlerd, ullet, ullat and woolert. Known as “cailleach oidhche gheal” in Gaelic. 

The appeal of owls lies in their humanoid expressions, as they have large foreheads and their eyes are set at the front of their broad, flat faces. These type of features are in actuality adaptations for their hunting, which is mainly nocturnal. The position of their eyes confers a wide field of binocular vision, which is very important in their judgement of distance. Their size is a result of specialisation in the enhancement of their night vision. They have sensitive hearing, which is also important, and owls have relatively large ears. The openings for their ears are situated just behind the facial disc of feathers which surrounds the eyes.

IDENTIFICATION
The Barn Owl is a medium-sized, pale owl which lacks feather ears. It has a heart-shaped facial disc, and dark eyes. The upper-parts are grey (gray), mixed with golden brown spots. In flight its very long wings are obvious, its wing span is about 90cm. It is usually a nocturnal hunter, though it may hunt by day in the winter.

VOICE
Because it has such a wide range of calls, some seventeen sound signals, this has given rise to some of its folk names such as “hissing owl” and “screech owl”. There a some of these sounds are non-vocal, such as tongue-clicking, which was previously thought to be the bird snapping its beak. The screech is a penetrating, tremulous hissing scream of two seconds duration. Other sounds include a non-tremulous wailing which has been likened to that of fighting cats; a defensive hiss; "snoring" a sustained wheezy rasping or hissing; as well as a mixture twitters, squeaks, chirrups and purring (the female’s being of a higher pitch).

HEARING
The right ear opening is usually larger and higher than the left. This unusual arrangement allows owls to pinpoint their prey with great accuracy by sound alone. The Barn owls ears also differ in sensitivity to high and low frequency sounds.

FOOD
The Short-tailed Vole (or Field Vole), is the Barn Owl's commonest prey. They often account for more than half of its food intake during the breeding season. Also preyed on are the Wood Mouse (or Long-tailed Field Mouse), the Bank Vole and the Common Shrew as well as rats and other small mammals and occasionally birds.

BREEDING
The pair-bonding is mostly monogamous, though the males are occasionally bigamous, and long-term. Under normal conditions courtship begins in late February. The male, during this period, hunts more by daylight in order to present food to his mate. 

As he patrols his territory he screeches so as to repel any rivals and also to attract the female. There is a good deal of attachment to traditional nest sites, and successive pairs tend to use the same ones for twenty or even thirty years. There are well authenticated cases where sites have been used in excess of a hundred years. The widespread use of artificial nest-boxes has over the recent past, proved to be successful. No nest is made, and even a scrape is thought to be no more than the fortuitous creation of the male's courtship behaviour. But, because the breeding season is so long, by the time the eggs are laid, there is often a soft bed of pellets and feathers. Between 4 and 6 un-glossed eggs are laid in April or early May. The eggs are incubated, almost entirely by the female, once the first egg is laid. The male feeds the female during the incubation period. The eggs hatch (asynchronously as with laying) after 32 to 34 days, and the young enjoy a remarkably lengthy fledging period of usually 60 days but can be anything up to 86 days. There are frequently 2 broods per year.


NEST SITES
In the British Isles usually select from one of three types of nest site: the insides of buildings, large tree cavities and rock cavities. The owl’s plumage has very little oil and is therefore easily waterlogged, so in areas that are predominately wet - such as Devon - 95% of nest sites are in buildings and in dryer areas - such as Suffolk - 70% nest in trees. Click here for information on barn owl nest boxes.

CONSERVATION
Barn Owls are so vulnerable that they have special protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) - under which it is an offence to intentionally disturb these birds while they are preparing to nest or during the actual process of breeding. 

Their decline is due in part to the persistent use of organo-chlorine insecticides, pesticides and rodenticides along with barn conversions, innumerable nest-sites in trees and buildings have been lost, trees in particular due to Dutch elm disease and freak storms. But a far greater impact on this decline has been the demise of their natural breeding and hunting ground - long grassed meadows. As the meadows disappear so does the mainstay of the Barn Owl’s diet, the Short-tailed Field Vole. 

TAWNY OWL

The TAWNY OWL (Strix aluco) is the most common and widespread owl in Europe and perhaps the commonest raptor in Britain. It is the owl of fairy tales, whose tu-whit, tu-whoo of the night has become part of out literary heritage. 
It has had a variety of names over the centuries such as beech owl, Billy hooter, brown owl, brown hoolet, brown ullert, common brown owl, ferny hoolet, Gilly hooter, golden owl, grey (gray) owl, hill hooter, hollering owl, hoot owl, howlett, ivy owl, Jenny howlett, Jinny yewlet, screech owl, tawny hooting owl, ullet, wood owl and wood ullat. 

IDENTIFICATION
The Tawny Owl is a chestnut-brown bird, boldly barred and streaked with buffs, blacks and whites to form a cryptic pattern. The breast is pale buff, heavily streaked with arrows of black-brown. A broad, rounded head has a prominent facial disc with deeply set dark eyes. Buff ‘eyebrows’ extend between the eyes to the bill. The tail is short and the wings broad and rounded. There is much individual variation in ground colour, from brown to grey (gray), but all plumage’s are highly effective in hiding the bird from the attentions of irritating small passerines at its daytime roost. It flies on soft, silent wings after dusk and is more frequently heard than seen.


VOICE
The Tawny Owl has at least ten basic calls and the young five. There is some variation between male and female, and individuals can be recognised by their own tremolo and constant pitch. The familiar ‘hoo’ first uttered as a protracted monosyllable, followed by a long pause, then a faint monosyllable, a short pause, and finally a long, soft quaver, falling in pitch. The familiar ‘kewick’ is heard mostly in spring and summer. The female utters ‘erriee’ mostly at any time of the year. 
SONGSoft tremulous ‘guuoh gu gur-ruuh’. 

FOOD
Predominantly small mammals such as long-tailed field mouse, field vole and common shrew. Birds, fish and other small mammals may be taken, and urban Tawny Owls have become specialist House Sparrow predators.

BREEDING
The pair-bonding is mostly monogamous, though the males are occasionally bigamous, and long-term. Under normal conditions courtship begins in late February. The male, during this period, hunts more by daylight in order to present food to his mate. 


As he patrols his territory he screeches so as to repel any rivals and also to attract the female. There is a good deal of attachment to traditional nest sites, and successive pairs tend to use the same ones for twenty or even thirty years. There are well authenticated cases where sites have been used in excess of a hundred years.


The widespread use of artificial nest-boxes has over the recent past, proved to be successful. No nest is made, and even a scrape is thought to be no more than the fortuitous creation of the male's courtship behaviour. But, because the breeding season is so long, by the time the eggs are laid, there is often a soft bed of pellets and feathers. Between 4 and 6 un-glossed eggs are laid in April or early May. The eggs are incubated, almost entirely by the female, once the first egg is laid. The male feeds the female during the incubation period. The eggs hatch (asynchronously as with laying) after 32 to 34 days, and the young enjoy a remarkably lengthy fledging period of usually 60 days but can be anything up to 86 days. There are frequently 2 broods per year.


HABITAT
The tawny owl is found in woodlands, parks, shelter belts, large gardens in both the countryside, and in cities.

LITTLE OWL

INTRODUCTION
In the early part of the 19th century, the little owl (Athene noctua) was a rare vagrant to the British Isles. Brought in as a natural predator to bullfinches, subsequent introductions were surprisingly successful and although in recent decline it is a common species in England and Wales and is now being recorded over the Scottish border.

IDENTIFICATION
The little owl is of small size and dumpy appearance. It has a habit of sitting atop of some post, telegraph pole or other prominent perch. This makes the little owl one of the most frequently observed of owls. It is a deep grey-brown (gray-brown) above, boldly spotted with white. The under-parts are white, with broad, broken streaks of grey-brown (gray-brown). A prominent facial mask is marked by dark areas around the yellow eyes, giving a remarkably ‘cross’ or ‘frowning’ look to the face. There is a dark band at the chin. Like most other owls it perches upright, and it has a bounding, woodpecker-like flight. When threatened it bobs and moves from side to side, as if to get a better look at the danger. 

VOICE
The Little Owl has at least eight recognised calls, all far-reaching and penetrating. The main two are: a ringing and plaintive ‘kiew’, ‘kiew’, repeated every few seconds and is frequently heard by day. The other is: a loud, rapidly repeated, yelping ‘wherrow’, with the emphasis on the first syllable. At the nest it utters a variety of chattering notes and, during the breeding season, a loud ‘hooo-oo’ note. 

FOOD
A wide variety of prey is taken, but small mammals such as mice, voles and shrews invariably form the significant proportion. Even small rabbits are not immune from attack. Small birds are frequently taken during the breeding season, as well as chicks of larger species. Earthworms, snails and slugs and even small fish are all taken, but insects are perhaps the dominant element. 


BREEDING
The 3 to 5 white, un-glossed eggs are laid in early May and incubation, mostly, if not entirely, by the female, takes from 28 to 29 days. Fledging takes a further 26 days during which food is brought by the male alone at first and later by both sexes. An occasional second brood is reared. Most nests are occupied during May. They are situated in tree holes, pollarded willows, in walls, old buildings, hay and strawricks, and even in rabbit burrows and cliff holes. See here for information on nest boxes for little owls.

HABITAT
Open country, often farmland, with hedges, ruins, hayricks or other suitable nesting and hiding places. Also found in broken country where rocks fulfil the same function.

LONG-EARED OWL

The LONG-EARED OWL (Asio otus) is a secretive species that is often overlooked by bird watchers and conservationists. It is small, well camouflaged and generally only calls in the breeding season so it is easily overlooked and hence under-studied - despite being one of our most ancient species! 


Because it is the most nocturnal and strongly arboreal, it is rarely seen by day and easily escapes attention, especially in winter, when it is generally silent.The long-eared owl is one of the most popular effigies of English literature yet it is the least known and most mysterious of British owls. It has been known by various names such as cat owl, horn coot, hornie hoolet, horn-owl, horned owl, long ears, long-horned owl, long-horned ullat and tufted owl.


IDENTIFICATION
The Long-eared Owl is smaller and slimmer than the Tawny Owl. It has long feather ears, orange-yellow eyes, as well as a conspicuous, well defined facial disc. Its plumage is the colour of bark. The female is often darker than the male. In flight long rather pointed wings. Active at dusk and by night; in winter often seen in loose groups.


VOICE
The hoot is distinct from that of the tawny, the male’s territorial proclamation being a relatively quiet, long and drawn-out, quavering hoo-hoo--hoo-hoo, repeated every few seconds. The female’s main call is a soft ‘shoo-oogh’, which fades away softly, like a heavy sigh. The alarm call is a ‘uek’, sometimes repeated; also a hissing ‘khviiu’. The young have a plaintive ‘stsieh’. 
The song of the male is a muffled soft ‘huh’.


FOOD
Feeds mainly on field voles, as well as other small rodents, shrews and birds.

BREEDING
From March to June with 3 to 6 eggs. The incubation period is 27 to 28 days. The young leave the nest at 18 to 25 days, and fledge from 30 days.


Breeds mainly in abandoned crows’ nests.


HABITAT
Mainly found in woodland on the edge of open country; also in copses. In the winter to be found in settlements

SHORT-EARED OWL

Unlike the other indigenous British Isles owls, the SHORT-EARED OWL (Asio flammeous)  is primarily a bird of the open country, and spends long periods away from trees and bushes, and nests, nearly always, on the ground. 


It has been known by such names as Brown Yogle, Cat Owl, Day Owl, Fern Owl, Grey (Gray) Hullet, Grey (Gray) Yogle, Hawk Owl, March Owl, Marsh Owl, Moor Owl, Mouse Hawk, Pilot Owl, Red Owl, Sea Owl, Short-horned Howlet, Short-horned Owl and Woodcock Owl.


IDENTIFICATION
The short-eared owl is more stocky and longer-winged than the long-eared owl. It is cryptically coloured in dull buffs and browns, with barring and streaking on the upper-parts, and bold dark streaking on the under-parts. The small ear tufts are invisible in the field. It has a conspicuous pale facial disc, eyes are pale yellow. It is also streaked black-brown on throat and breast. The female on the whole is darker than the male. It is diurnal as well as nocturnal. Often sits on a posts, but occasionally in trees. 

VOICE
This rather quiet owl has a small vocabulary. It certainly lacks the rich variety of the long-eared owl. In spring, when threatened, male utters a yapping ‘chef-chef’. During courtship the male utters a low-pitched ‘voo-hoo-hoo-hoo’ or ‘boo-boo-boo’. 
Song of the male is an 8-12 syllable ‘bu-bu-bu’.


FOOD
Field voles are the principal quarry, but a wide variety of other small mammals such as long-tailed field mice, as well as shrews, rats and even young rabbits may be taken. Small birds are also important items at some times and places. 

BREEDING
A slow-winged display flight with occasional wing beats and wing-clapping.


The nest is a roughly lined scrape hidden among grass heather, marram, or dead reeds. The 4 to 8 white eggs, though up to 14 in years when voles are plentiful, are laid in late April or early May at 2-day intervals. Incubation, by the female alone, commences with the first egg and lasts 24 to 28 days. The young leave the nest after 12 to 17 days and fly after 24 to 27 days. One brood is usual, though in years of vole abundance, two broods may be attempted.


HABITAT
Open grassy moorland, marshes, sand dunes; in winter frequents grassy marshes and grazing meadows, also adjacent arable fields and moors.


FLIGHT
The under-wing is whitish with blackish tips and a dark carpal mark; flight soft and wavering with slow, deep wing beats; quarters the ground low, often hovers; on breeding territory Buzzard-like circling; display flight includes wing-clapping.

EUROPEAN EAGLE OWL

Wild European eagle Owls (Bubo bubo) breed in the UK in small numbers. Opinions are divided as to whether these birds have originated from wild European or Scandination birds that have flown to the UK or from escaped captive birds. 

Whichever the case, they have bred successfully for over a decade at sites in Forest of Bowland and other places, mainly in the North of England. As with other large birds of prey, they are not always appreciated by some parties and suffer persecution, particularly in areas where they breed near gaming estates.


Research has in fact suggested these British birds actually take rabbit as their main quarry.

SNOWY OWL

Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) have not bred in the UK in the wild since the 1970's in the Shetlands. Singleton birds still occur each year, usually in the Outer Hebrides and the northern islands but to date (2020) no breeding records have been recorded.

Look for more information on British owls on Wild Owl Nature Diaries You Tube channel.