Nature 2022 June

What’s that which went hoot in the night?

Over March and April this year we were treated to a dusk and dawn serenade from several owls, from which emanated a variety of hoots, screeches and at times piercing whistles. I decided it was time my lack of insight into the various owls needed some rectification, which led me to research this interesting family of birds: the ‘Strigiformes’. I pored over several books which revealed some useful facts and anecdotes and quite a few contradictions. Hopefully, I’ve been broadly successful in sorting the wheat from the chaff though using words but no pictures to illustrate these does have some limitations!

It is reasonable to suggest that of all the bird species the owl family have the capacity to both warm our hearts and frighten us. There are probably more myths and folk stories about owls than any other group of birds. Whilst today, such accounts relating to cultures, beliefs and religions across the globe might cite the owl as a symbol of wisdom, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. After centuries of persecution, the owl has gone through a modern rehabilitation. This can perhaps first be found in the poem by Edward Lear dating from 1871, The Owl And The Pussy-cat, and also perhaps with the owl character created by A A Milne who in 1926 published Winnie-the-Pooh.

In gothic horror stories and poems prior to the late 1800s the owl was frequently depicted differently. Samuel Coleridge in his supernatural poems deployed the cockerel depicting the daytime whilst the owl is supreme at dusk and through the night. Whereas the cock crow heralds daybreak, the night-time hoot from an owl is depicted as foretelling darkness and evoking fear, malevolence and impending death. Their hoots, cries, screeches, moans and wailing in the dead of night might be perceived as aimed personally at us and and inhuman in their origin. As symbols heralding looming danger or suspense, owls and their sounds are still frequently deployed in film and television drama to warn the audience of impending doom or looming danger.

In the British Isles today there are six owl species. The first to mention is the barn owl, our most distinctive owl. Adult birds have white underparts and golden-buff upper and wing plumage. The face is a distinct white heart-shaped disc. Flight is a ghostly quartering of fields in search of rats, voles and mice. The breeding season is a protracted affair starting in February involving up to two broods of between three and eleven eggs. Its most noticeable call is a screech or a repeated hissing chant. In his Natural History of Selbourne, Gilbert White recorded in the mid-eighteenth century that his fellow villagers were up in arms because the churchyard was believed to have been occupied by “goblins and spectres” due to the hissing and ghostly white apparitions emanating from the yew trees. Today there are only around 5,000 pairs of this bird, down by half from the numbers in the 1930s. Much of this decline occurred in the period up to 1950 when the barn owl continued to suffer persecution from those whose superstitious beliefs led to the owl being pinned up on barn doors as a defence against thunder and lightning. An RSPB campaign in the 1950s helped to turn this tide of decline. Before the availability of old agricultural buildings, suitable holes in trees were the commonest place of daytime rest. As old buildings disappeared the advent of large owl boxes has provided a new safe haven.

The next species is the little owl. This owl was introduced into Yorkshire from Italy in the 1840s and has spread UK-wide. It is our smallest species. Mottled brown plumage with brown and white-barred tail feathers. It is attracted to derelict agricultural and industrial buildings but is equally at home in landscaped parkland, orchards, old hedgerows and unmanaged woodland edges. Though alert during the day it might be difficult to spot, but at dusk you will know two or more are close by the distinctive mewing interspersed with piercing and yelping calls played to each other in turn. Prey is often larger than itself, including pigeons and waterbirds as well as moles, mice and shrews and frequently earthworms, snails or beetles.

Third on the list is the tawny owl. Its name denotes its overall mottled plumage colours. Our largest native owl is most at home in woodland settings. Its call is the anthem for all owls and was first coined by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost, – “To-whit Tu-wooo”. Though there have been vociferous exchanges over many years in the birding world as to the accuracy of the phonetics, until the 20th century it was assumed each bird made the whole sound whereas these days there is broad consensus that the first part is the male call sign and the second the female. The female lays up to seven eggs in March. Prey comprises mammals, birds, frogs, worms and insects.

The next two owls are closely related but their distribution in the British Isles broadly complements each other. The long-eared owl, which is slightly smaller than a tawny owl, occupies the West Midlands, Southwest England and parts of Wales and Ireland, whereas the resident population of the short-eared owl is only found north of a line from The Humber to The Mersey estuaries. The longeared variety prefers coniferous woodland plantations and copses and in winter roosts in groups from ten up to 200, from which the expression ‘a parliament of owls’ is derived. They are very much night-time hunters. In contrast, the short-eared owl is a day-time hunter with strong wings that sweep low over moorland. Prey is typically small mammals.

The final member of the British Isles owl community is the snowy owl. Despite its celebrity status as Harry Potter’s Hedwig, these days it is a rare winter visitor to northernmost Britain including the Shetlands and occasionally Ireland. It has a distinctive white plumage. Its main food is voles or birds such as ptarmigan.

From my research it appears that our three local owls to listen (or look) out for are the barn owl, little owl and the tawny owl. Happy hunting!

And for some uplifting poetry what better than the following Limerick from Edward Lear…

There was an Old Man with an owl,
Who continued to bother and howl;
He sat on a rail
And imbibed bitter ale,
Which refreshed that Old Man and his owl.

Chris Brown BEM
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