An Owl For Autumn
There is one creature that completely embodies Autumn for me. It’s the soundtrack to those fresh, crisp nights when the first stars appear early in the inky sky and your breath streams out in front of you like ribbons. You could even go so far as to say that is even the colour of Autumn; caramel swirls, and mottled browns mix together like the leaves on a forest floor, thick and heavy after dropping clean from outstretched branches. It’s actually quite tricky to describe the colours of this creature without giving away its name. The tawny owl.
Have you ever had the chance to look at a tawny owl up close? Perhaps you’ve found a dropped feather and have witnessed the many colours that build up to give the owl it’s autumn disguise. You might even have been lucky enough to catch sight of a tawny owl at roost, tucked in close to the trunk of a tree, almost invisible to all that pass by. Chances are you probably haven’t seen too many tawny owls at roost because those autumn colours help to camouflage this avian marvel, painting it right into the environment.
It’s not just the way these nocturnal beasts look like that enthrals me, those big saucer eyes rimmed with delicate pink, hidden amongst delicate fern like facial feathers, but it’s the adaptations that they have acquired. Their wings are comprised of feathers with a comb like edge. By allowing the air to slip through the gaps in the feather, these serrated edges provide this predator with the gift of silent flight. Whilst we’re on the subject of flight, the fact they can fly and manoeuvre through woodland habitat, in the pitch black and descend upon tiny creatures scurrying through undergrowth just baffles me. It’s an enviable skill, assisted by their phenomenal hearing. With ears positioned asymmetrically on either side of their head they are able to pin point the exact location of their quarry. The owl will turn its head until the sound is level in both ears, allowing them to locate the preys precise location to launch a calculated attack.
They are opportunistic hunters and won’t turn their beaks up at small mammals, smaller birds, and even amphibians. There have also been accounts of bat remains in their pellets, and there have been reports of some dining on goldfish. But voles make up the majority of their diet, and their cyclical breeding patterns of boom and bust years have a great affect on the breeding successes of the owls. The most productive breeding years occur when there is an increase in the vole population providing a glutton of voles for a woodland bird.
These enigmatic owls have claimed Autumn as their own, for me, not just because of their Autumn colours but because this is the time of year when they are typically most active. And when I say active, I mean vocal. This time of year is when young owlets are all grown up, ready to claim their own territory, but not necessarily willing. The parents have usually had enough of them by this point and have maybe nudged the idea that it might be finally time to fly the nest. Tawny Owls are notoriously territorial and will defend their spaces with all their owllike might, this is usually done by being very noisy, even against their own young. If that doesn’t work, then they will resort to physical displays – think lots of puffing up feathers and wing raising.
All those young owls heading out to find their own place in the world means that others with already established territories have got a lot of defending to do. It was once thought that the sound of an owl was a harbinger death, that eerie cry an omen of the loss of a loved one. But it turns out it’s actually just a bunch of owls having a barney about who’s got the best spot.
The tawny owls probably have the most recognisable call, the familiar hollow woody sounding “hoo hoo hooo” that floats through the evening the air from perch to perch is the noise we usually associate with owls. This is the male’s call. The females sharper and more piercing “kewick” punctuates the spaces between the male’s contribution to create a conversation. Both male and females are able to produce both types of calls, but they tend to stick to their own gender which acts as both an attraction and defence mechanism.
With nights full of screeching and hooting, it would be easy to assume that the tawny is thriving and fruitful but unfortunately, they are on the amber list for concern due to a steady population decline. The British Trust for Ornithology have estimated a 28% decline in these woodland based birds. However, due to their nocturnal habits they can be incredibly difficult to study, this means that scientists struggle to gather data. Without information on numbers and behaviour it becomes increasingly difficult to pin point the problems that are responsible for the consistent decrease in tawny owl numbers.
But, fear not, there is a way around these problems and it is reliant on the involvement of people like us! With the help of interested members of the general public, scientists can begin to put together all the missing pieces of the puzzle. With a five year project they are asking people to take part in surveys surrounding your experiences of tawnys, and they are currently interested in the vocalisations of the autumn owl. By asking everyone in every location on mainland U.K (tawnys aren’t found in Ireland or any locations across a large expanse of water) to submit their findings, they can start to get an idea of where they are most prolific, and possibly more importantly where they aren’t. The more data the better because the more questions can be answered, and the more owls saved. You can find out more about Project Owl here, as well as being able to submit any findings you may have.
So, the next time you find yourself crunching through moonlit frost coated leaves with your hands stuffed deep into your pockets and your nose buried in your scarf, keep your ears open because these are a tawny’s favourite kind of night. And if you are lucky enough to hear the haunting calls (even if you’re not -no calls are still valuable data) then make a note and be sure to submit them to the BTO so they can help to these creatures of autumn to remain the keepers of the season for many more years to come. Without the tawny owl then those inky blue star speckled nights, where the cold bites and your fingertips tingle, would be forever incomplete.