There are five species of owl resident in the United Kingdom; the Barn, the Tawny, the Short-eared, the Long-eared and the Little, the last of which is not native. Owls as a group are largely nocturnal birds of prey that are found across the Earth absent only from Antarctica and some islands. Their upright postures, large eyes, silent wings and nocturnal habits are features which have made them fascinating to the human imagination, I have not escaped this fascination and owls are creatures I will never tire of seeing. I have had the blessing of encountering all five UK owl species, some multiple times and others just the once, but every encounter has been highly memorable.
I’ll start with the Tawny Owl, seeing as it’s the commonest and most familiar species, one which has been illustrated countless times in children’s books and cartoons and whose distinctive call is in the soundtrack of almost every night-time scene in a film. Due to the fact they are active after dark and rarely seen at their roost during the day, most people will be familiar with the appearance of this owl from Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin’ as the grumpy Old Brown who the squirrels pay in mice and eggs for letting them on his island.
Seeing one may be tricky, but hearing them is the easiest thing in the world, for Tawny Owls are present in almost every wood or copse in Britain. It is this species which gave rise to the famous ‘too-wit too-woo’ call that every child knows is the noise an owl makes, but this is only partly true. The first part of the call is a female calling, more accurately described as ‘kee-wit’ and then a male will ‘hoooo-oo’ in response, for many years these calls were as close as I got to a Tawny, until last summer when I finally saw one.
I was staying in a holiday cottage in Devon at the time, in a tiny rural hamlet surrounded by farmland, the house I was staying in was next to a road and on the opposite side of the road was a hedge with a telegraph wire running above it. One evening, after the sun had set, the harvest moon rose above the horizon and hung above the hedge opposite like a great yellow cheese in the clear sky. Then my brother called to me and pointed, and sitting on the telegraph wire above the hedge, its back to me and with the full moon shining behind it so that it was a clear-cut silhouette, was a Tawny Owl. It perched there for a minute, just a perfect owl outline with a great big head, then it flew up to the telegraph pole for a while before eventually swooping down into the field and out of sight.
Any encounter with an owl is pretty special, especially if, like me, you’ve been waiting to see a particular species for many years. But seeing that Tawny framed against the moon, a black figure that moved without the slightest wisper, hunting in the darkness, it really made sense to me how these birds can have so effected humanity’s mind for centuries and become deeply rooted within our folklore, our fairy-tales and our culture. The dark of night has long been feared, feared because it contains the unknown, and all humans are scared of the unknown. So, any creatures that make the black depths of night their home, the time when they are most active, becomes itself unknowable and mysterious to us, something that doesn’t belong to the world we live in. It is therefore something to be both feared and revered, a symbol of death but also of power and wisdom – for only the owl knows what goes on once the sun has fallen.
The Tawny has accrued various names over the centuries, a testament to its impact on society, including ones such as Ferny Hoolet, Wood Owl, Ivy Owl, Brown Owl and then of course its scientific name Strix aluco. Back in the day, when there was no street lighting and we were still afraid of the dark, Tawny Owls were considered bad luck, as were most things that lived in the night. But these days I think that the Tawny’s image has changed, probably due to it being portrayed over and over again in fairy tales, bedtime stories and cartoons (I’m thinking things like Winnie-the-pooh) which have, by association, given the owl a more friendly and familiar persona in the public eye.
I hope I one day get to see a Tawny Owl in enough light to make out its colour and markings, to better appreciate its features, but I suspect that the majority of future sightings will be of brief fly-pasts in the headlights of a car, which is all that the majority of people ever see of them.
Illustration by Charles Tunnicliffe.