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Tawny Owl { birds of Europe }

Updated on August 9, 2015

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Tawny owls belong to the order Strigiformes and the family Strigidae. They are given the genus name of Stix { Greek for owl} and the specific name of aluco from the Latin ulucus alluding to a screech owl.

It is the commonest owl by far in the UK and it is on the Green list of Conservation Concern { no current concerns} with an estimated 50,000 pairs during the summer. In Europe it of least concern with an estimated population between 445-900,000.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Comhachag-dhonn and the Welsh Tylluan Frech.

Here we review the lifestyle and breeding of the Tawny owl, along with historical notes from past ornithologists. As always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Illustration of the Tawny owl

Familiar Wild  Birds --Swaysland { 1883 }
Familiar Wild Birds --Swaysland { 1883 }

Genera of birds

Genera of birds Strigiformes head types
Genera of birds Strigiformes head types

Description of the Tawny owl

The plumage of the Tawny Owl varies somewhat across its range. There is a Tawny brown form and another which is almost grey {rarely seen in the UK }. The hooked bill is horn coloured and almost hidden by bristles, the cere is flesh coloured. The iris is dark brown to black. Two irregular whitish stripes extend backwards over the eyes and the facial disk is well marked.

The head is large and rounded, the crown being dark brown and rufous , the bristly feathers on the face are greyish white, interspersed with black near the bill, and the small rounded feathers wreath are black in the center, edged, spotted and barred with white and rufous. The neck is a dingy white, with rufous brown streaks and spots. The nape and back dark brown with markings of brownish grey. The throat and breast are similarly coloured as the neck.

The wings which have an expansion of three feet or so, are a mixture of ash grey, mottled with shaded brown and the under part greyish white, with bars of reddish brown. The lower part of the body is greyish white with streaks and spots of pale and darker brown. The under tail coverts are white. The legs and toes are covered with white-grey feathers. The claws are long and sharp, curved, horn white at the base and darker towards the tips. The females are larger than the males. The male weighs around 420 grams while the females weighs around 520 grams.

In relation to their body size the wings are medium long, the tail medium, the neck short. Legs are short. The bill does not project. The flight is slow and flapping like other large owls.

Courtesy of PC King

British birds

British Birds with their Nest and Eggs  -Butler { 1800's}
British Birds with their Nest and Eggs -Butler { 1800's}

The Tawny owl General and Historical notes.

The Tawny Owl, also referred to as the Brown Owl or Wood Owl is one of the commonest members of the Owl family, and , is certainly the commonest Owl to be found in the UK. However, because of its seclusion and nocturnal habits very few people become acquainted with it. Thickly covered woods, dense plantations and large shrubberies are the haunt of this species during the daylight hours where they hides itself away. It will only take to open woodland when evening gives way to the darkness of the night.

At this time the Tawny owl is compelled by hunger or the necessities of a young family, quits its retreat and commences a slow but exhaustive search for food. Young rabbits, rats, mice,voles,moles and small birds and the larger sorts of insects are taken when encountered by this stealthy hunter and either devoured on the spot or taken home to the family larder.

On these forays, which are usually methodical in their order, fields , farmsteads, low hedges and the outskirts of woods, plantations and similar places, are carefully quartered, and its prey must remain motionless and hidden to escape the searching gaze of this wanderer of the night. The Tawny owl does not chase its prey after the manner of a hawk or falcon, but siezes it suddenly and unawares.

The flight is somewhat slow and heavy, and owing to the soft downy character of its plumage is perfectly silent. This allows the bird to approach unwary travelers, and seize them with its powerful talons.

The call of the Tawny owl, is the familiar Tu-Whit-Tu Whooo which has a tremulous nature. This sound is in fact two birds calling the male rendering Tu-Whit, and the female answering the call immediately with Tu-whooo. It has been compared to a mocking laugh in days gone by, and unfortunately for the owl, it was regarded as an ill-omen by our ancestors, and its proximity to any house was regarded as being foretelling of a death about to occur within it.

H.E. Stewart in his book, Birds of our Country-1889, relates to us " I once went out for a woodland walk with a friend. I remarked to him as I noticed a hole in a tree trunk of an elm, that it would be a good hole for an owl, not thinking for one moment that my words would come true, threw a stick at the place. Out flew a magnificent Tawny owl, and immediately some dozen or so small birds from neighbouring fields started in pursuit. Round him they flew, screaming and chattering, knowing they were safe while their enemy was blinded by the sunlight, until the whole flock was lost to sight in a neighbouring copse."

I have often been made aware of a Tawny owl's presence by the commotion made by small feathered sprites as they'mob' a roosting owl. It was usually perched upon a branch nest to the trunk of a tree, and were it not for these 'mobbing' birds would have gone unnoticed completely, made almost invisible by its excellent camouflage.

Many owls will pick out a suitable location such as in a tall pine tree or some other tree clad with ivy, or some dense evergreen such as Holly in which to rest up during the daylight hours.

Small birds cause a commotion when an owl is spotted.

Birds through the Year 1922
Birds through the Year 1922

Past persecution of the Tawny owl.

The Tawny Owl is another species which, sadly, has suffered persecution, almost to the point of extinction ,in days gone by,in the UK. Gamekeepers in particular were unrelenting in destroying this bird, in many districts, in a supposed interest of their pheasants. There is on record a man's vain attempts to defend one against a gamekeeper's persecution.The gamekeeper spoke aggressively to him " See these 'ere'talons? See this'ere beak?, don't tell me they don't eat game"

The argument of the defender was that it could be considered that, when the owl is abroad in search of food it is during the hours of darkness. Thus the young pheasant chicks would be secure in their coops or covered in seclusion by their mothers. hence the owl is being persecuted for crimes it could not commit in the general order of things.

On this subject Lord Lilford {1800's} admits-- " I can not acquit the brown owl of occasional poaching, but I am convinced that such occurrences are exceptional, and, in defense of a very favourite bird, may I refer my readers to the result of an examination of 210 pellets,composed of indigestible portions of food, thrown up by the birds of their species in Yarrel's British Birds, the fourth edition page 148. In these pellets were found the remains of six rats, forty two mice,296 voles, thirty three shrews, forty eight moles, eighteen small birds, forty eight beetles, besides a countless number of cockchaffers. this incontestably proves the general innocent nature of the Tawny Owl's bill of fare.


Gould--Birds of Europe {1837}
Gould--Birds of Europe {1837}

Tawny Owls in captivity Historical notes

Meyer {1837} relates the following information of one which he reared from the nest. " It inhabited an out building in which various household affairs were transacted, by the servants, to one of whom it was evidently attached. As the building was much covered with ivy, which obscured the light, it would sit in the day time and watch her operations with all the familiarity of a favourite cat. No restraint was put on its liberty, yet it seldom strayed beyond the residence to which it had attached itself."

" This bird amused us by frequently, by an exhibition which at last cost the poor creature its life. It was fond of washing itself in a tub of water which usually stood in the place where the bird was kept, and the dreadful sight baffles description, when this wretch sat on the edge of the tub dripping wet, with its feathers sticking close to its sides. The only thing imaginable that we can compare it to is the black remains of a burnt paper candle lighter, surmounted by two glaring eyes."

" This past time ended tragically, the poor bird once, by mistake, plunged into a tub of food prepared for the pigs, and ended his career in consequence of the vessel being deeper than his usual bath"

Lord Lilford stated on the subject, that young birds are easy to rear, become very tame, and, from their solemnity of expression and the most grotesque attitude which they assume, are among the most satisfactory inmates of the aviary.

Nest and eggs of the Tawny Owl

Paring can begin as early as January when their familiar call notes can be heard on dark winter nights resonating around the countryside and rural villages. However, unless the weather is very unseasonable, nesting operations commence as a general rule in March. A hole in a tree is the usual locality sought for their parental home. No great care is taken with the building of a nest, these birds seem content with a few pieces of moss, straw,hay,and a few soft feathers.

Two to three eggs are deposited, of a dull white colour and almost round in shape. These eggs are incubated for around thirty days by the female.

In defense of its nest this owl is very bold, and will swoop down on an intruder. I have witnessed one such owl who must have had a nest in the grounds of a church. Sunday morning worshiper's would be dive bombed by the parent birds to the point were the worshipers would avoid the area altogether which represented one of the main accesses to the church door.

Butler in his book British Birds with their Nest and Eggs { 1896-98} , relates to the subject about the birds aggression which is especially revealed when the owlets hatch." One of the entrances to a house belonging to a friend, was closed for a time owing to a pair of Tawny Owl's that had their nest in a fine elm by the gate.refusing to permit anyone to approach without attack, and boys that have robbed the nest of the young have been seriously injured"

The young birds are odd looking creatures at first, being entirely covered with a soft white down, which becomes grey. their powers of vision is also ineffective. They remain for some considerable time in the nest,and after leaving perch upon the branches nearby,where they are assiduously attended to by their parents, until they become independent.

Owlets characteristically perched upon a branch

Creative Commons 1.2 generic license or later version
Creative Commons 1.2 generic license or later version | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Eddy, glad you have enjoyed it and there are plenty more to come. Thank you for your loyal follow my friend . Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      4 years ago from Wales

      What a wonderful and interesting hub DAL.I love Mother nature and all her family so without a doubt this gem was a rare treat. Keep them coming so that I may carry on reading and learning. Have a wonderful day My friend.

      Love from Wales.


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb thank you for visiting and for your comments, which coming from someone who is very knowledgeable about birds, is a compliment indeed.Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Such wonderful information on the beautiful Tawny Owl! Well done.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika, Owls are one of my favourite birds and I hope to be doing more articles on other species in the future. Thank you as usual for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Tawny Owls are so beautiful and often we hear them but hardly see these creatures. Great research here. I remember when I was back in South Africa we had barn owls was very interesting to observe then as they lived in a shed close by.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      They certainly are beautiful birds. I appreciate your kind comments and thank you for your vote up. Best wishes to you.

    • Lisawilliamsj profile image

      Lisa Chronister 

      4 years ago from Florida

      Wow these are such beautiful creatures! This is a very well written and informative article. Thanks for sharing, I voted up!


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