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British Owls

"There are five British owl species. They are the Barn Owl, Short Eared Owl, Long Eared Owl, Little Owl, and Tawny Owl."

Owls are among the most popular British birds. They are a memorable sight in rural areas where their food is plentiful.

There are five British Owl species, the Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared owl, Little Owl, and Tawny owl.

The Barn owl is the most identifiable by sight with its heart-shaped white face and underparts; the Tawny Owl by sound with its "call and response" of "hwit-too-woo."

Here we introduce you to all five British Owl species, with a mention for the Eagle Owl, which has had some success breeding here, probably as an escapee from captivity. Very rarely, the Snowy Owl, familiar to Harry Potter fans, may visit from the north.

British Owls - Barn owl on a post.

Barn Owl (Tyto Alba)

The beautiful barn owl can most often be seen at dawn and dusk perched high at the side of the road or on fences by fields on the lookout for its prey of voles and mice. Barn owls favour open countryside with fields close to water or woodland. The dark eyes, which reflect little light, identify this owl as nocturnal.

Barn Owl numbers are in decline with pressure from reduced habitat and prey availability. Open areas of tussocky grassland harbour plentiful prey, unlike grazed, short-cropped grass.

 

Barn owls have traditionally roosted in old barns and hollow trees, but the modern barn isn't suitable, meaning roosting places are in shorter supply. 

However, this owl will take to nesting boxes situated appropriately, and conservation efforts are underway to help improve numbers.

The barn owl's call is somewhat at odds with its elegant demeanor being a harsh screech, giving it another name, the Screech Owl.

British Owls - Long-eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl ( Asio Otus)

The long-eared owl is the least understood and the most nocturnal of the British Owls. It prefers coniferous woodland or scrub, such as hawthorn and blackthorn, where it likes to nest.

Small rodents (especially Field voles) and birds make up their diet, with small rats more critical to the Northern Ireland population.

The feathery tufts on the top of the head are not ears but are raised when the owl is alarmed. 

This owl can be challenging to identify, especially to differentiate it from the Short-eared owl, which has similar, though smaller, head tufts.

However, these owls have distinctly different eye colours, with the Long-eared owl having deep orange eyes and the Short-eared having intense yellow eyes with a complete ring of black plumage.

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

The short-eared owl is a daytime hunter, searching out its prey over grassland and coastal marshes. Voles are its primary food source, along with small birds.

Breeding birds are more commonly seen in northern areas all year round. However, this owl can be seen more often in winter as migratory birds come to the UK from Scandinavia and Russia.

Nesting is often on the ground in hollowed-out nests lined with downy feathers.

The short-eared owl rarely raises its head tufts, which, as with the long-eared owl, are not actually ears. The bright yellow eyes circled in black plumage help distinguish it from the long-eared owl with deeper coloured orange eyes.

The pale underparts with less dark mottling are notable differences between this bird and the long-eared owl when in flight.

Both long and short-eared owls are similar in size to Barn Owls.

Little Owl with ladybird

Little Owl (Athene Noctua)

The Little Owl is the smallest of the British Owls, introduced to the country from the continent in the late 1800s. It's about the size of a Song Thrush but appears much stockier.

It is often spotted in the daytime nestled in stone walls or perched on posts and telegraph poles, quietly on the lookout for its prey.

Little owls supplement the usual owl diet of voles and mice with worms, beetles, and insects.

In the breeding season, from late spring through summer, the demands of hungry chicks require these generally nocturnal hunters to search out food during the daytime.

The nest is often in a hollow tree from which they rarely stray far.

The plumage is speckled with shades of brown to almost white. Their eyes are pale yellow and appear large on their short face: feathers above the eyes look like eyebrows and give them a stern look.

 

Nestled down, they appear almost round, hiding their long legs and looking like fierce balls of feathers.

Tawny Owl in birch tree

Tawny Owl (Strix Aluco)

The Tawny owl has the most well-known and recognisable call of all British owls. The familiar t-wit-hoo-woo is not one owl but two. The female calls with t-wit, and the male responds with hoo-woo.

The largest and most common of the five British owls in residence, it is widespread in England, Wales, and Scotland but absent from Ireland. 

The dark eyes help distinguish this owl from all but the Barn owl. It can be identified in comparison to the latter by its dark face and chest.

The tawny owl has a broader range of prey than other owls, adding frogs and fish to rodents, small birds, worms, and insects.

Tawny owls are mostly found in deciduous woodland or parkland but have also been seen in suburban settings with large gardens.

It prefers to nest in hollow trees but will also occupy old crows' nests or squirrel dreys. They have also been known to use nest boxes in appropriate sites.

Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo Bubo) and Snowy Owl (Nyctea Scandiaca)

While neither resident nor common, the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Snowy Owl have both been spotted in the UK. There is debate about whether these birds escaped captivity or arrived naturally from the continent and polar regions. 

The Snowy owl is the least frequent visitor and is not known to have bred in the British Isles, except in the Shetland Islands.

At the beginning of this century, a pair of Eagle Owls in Yorkshire successfully raised around 20 chicks, but little is known of what happened to them. However, there have been recent sightings that may indicate a return to our shores.

All photographs are by the author, Janice Gill, with the exception of the Short-Eared Owl, which is by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash.

My Owl photographs and artwork collection is available as prints on various surfaces, including mugs, paper, and canvas.

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