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My Heart Stopping Encounter with a Barn Owl.

Updated on August 5, 2015

Barn owl

Familiar Wild Birds {1800's}
Familiar Wild Birds {1800's}

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

January is named after the two headed god of vigil. Janus. One head looks back on the old year while the other looks forward to the next. It is the time when the icy cold grip of winter takes over the countryside and this year is exceptionally cold. The bitter cold easterly winds can turn a normally pleasant stroll into an endurance exercise. Significant falls of snow can turn the landscape into an uninviting white desert, or a fascinating place to explore,depending on your view. Personally I take the latter view , I love to go out in virgin snow to see what animals have been abroad during the early hours. Once you are familiar with the tracks of birds and animals then it is possible to tell which creature has been out and about without actually seeing the creature concerned. With a little practice it is possible to distinguish between the tracks of rabbits, badgers, foxes, hares, deer, pheasants,  ducks etc.

It is a misconception that squirrels hibernate in winter and they can often be seen even in the snow foraging for food they hid during the autumn. They are however, more sluggish in their movements and will return to the dray for up to 2 days when they have had their fill.

I have on occasion to be out and about in the countryside during the hours of darkness at this time of the year, checking that all is well at the lake. The countryside as one can imagine is completely different in appearance and atmosphere in the dark. However, I am so familiar with the location that any shape or form that should not be there sticks out easily and instantly puts me aware.

Darkness also heightens the senses and sound carries far in the silence of the night. Tawny owls are clearly audible at present calling to each other defying the cruel cold. Some calls from animals of the night are not as soothing. The screech of the barn owl for instance can be unnerving. But the call  from a vixen is one of the most unearthly sounds you are likely to encounter during the hours of darkness.This call can put fear into the heart of anyone unfamiliar with it. A volley of vulpine barks in the quietness of the night is one you are unlikely to forget.

A frozen pathway with a dusting of snow

one of the pathways to the lake in winter.
one of the pathways to the lake in winter.

Foxy Lady.

The reason for this frenzied yelping is to attract a dog fox. Unlike many animals the season of a vixen lasts only for 2-3 days after this the chance of mating has gone. Locally January is the prime time for vixens' season. Once she has conceived she will carry her off spring for around 53 days. The peak time for the birth being late March or early April. Once the dog fox has mated he will start to roam more and more extending his normal range in the hope of finding other vixens he can mate with.

The average litter size is 4-6 cubs. Studies have revealed that only 2 cubs per litter will survive their first winter. They have also revealed that the first winter mortality rate is as high as 80% in some areas of the country. The cubs are born in a burrow called a den or earth. However, any secure crevice will suffice, such as a large drain pipe, hollow tree stumps and even under sheds in urban areas.

For the first month of their lives the cubs rely entirely on their mother's milk. When they are young she will lie down in order for them to suckle. As the cubs get bigger she tends to stand while they suckle allowing enough space for the cubs to feed. Her supply of milk eventually dries up and by the time the cubs are six months old they will rely more and more on solid food.

By the time thy emerge from the earth they resemble the adults in general appearance although their coats are lighter. The entrance of the burrow is around 20cm in diameter.

It is my opinion that having the chance to see a vixen with her cubs in the spring sunshine is one of the most beautiful sights the English countryside has to offer.

Vixen with her cub

One of the most beautiful sights in the English countryside. A vixen with her cub. Photograph courtesy of John Harrison.
One of the most beautiful sights in the English countryside. A vixen with her cub. Photograph courtesy of John Harrison.


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    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 8 years ago from England

      thanks D.A.L, never thought of that! thanks again. Nell

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      IzzyM thank you for reading. Unfortunately especially in the U.K. with ban on fox hunting, poisoning and indiscriminate use of gassing will become more common place.

      Jayjay thank you for reading and for your appreciated comments.

      2uesday--Your welcome and thank you for reading.

      Darlene--Thank you for reading. Save what man is capable of there is little to be concerned about in the countryside at night.Although they are beautiful animals they are ruthless and will surplus kill. In general they survive on rabbits, earth worms and even beetles. I have always liked silence ever since I first heard it.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      May well have been a vixen Nell, but I suspect it could well have been a tom cat they make the most awful wailing sounds just as you describe in between a woman and a baby wailing.

      Thanks for reading, cheers Nell.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Oh how I love this article, it does look spooky at night, I would be scared. We have a family of foxes in my neighborhood and we all need to watch our small pets, they have cleaned out all the rabbits and now are resorting to eating squirrels. I to love to hear the sound of the Earth, no blasting music or TV, just the Earths sounds as it spin through our galaxy, thanks for a fantastic article.

    • 2uesday profile image

      2uesday 8 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this it was a good chance to learn something about foxes and your writing style makes it a very enjoyable read.

      In 2008 I saw a fox at the back of the allotments. I was awe struck by the colour of its fur and its size as it was a very handsome fox in good health. I was also a bit nervous because it was trotting along so confidently but when it saw us it dashed off in the opposite direction. It was a privilege to see a wild animal so close. Reading this reminded me, thank you.

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 8 years ago from Bristol England

      I have a fox that visits our garden. My dog sits and watches the fox through the fence, they stare at each other but not in an agressive way. Foxes are beautiful creatures. Thanks for a lovely hub, you have such a good way with words

    • IzzyM profile image

      IzzyM 8 years ago from UK

      Fascinating insight into foxes, my friend. They are not something I knew much about, although I have always thought them beautiful animals.

      They live here too, on the campo. I often hear them calling after dark. Unfortunately here, the farmers put poisoned meat down for them, and many a local dog has died an agonising death after eating this meat. It is completely illegal to put down poisoned bait here, but they do it and unless you see them doing it, you have no way of reporting them.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 8 years ago from England

      hi, D.A.L, I am like you, I love the snow, especially when it starts to get dark. I have spent most of the afternoon, sorting out food from the fridge that has not been used up, to feed the squirrels that are out the back of my place, and the birds. People thought I was mad, as I was carrying loads of pies etc, in my arms! But it was great to see them come down from the tree and grab some of the food. Love it! and I love your pictures of the fox, they are lovely creatures. I do have a question, one night last year at about three in the morning, I heard the most horrible wailing sound, and my son thought it was an animinal being hurt, The only way I can describe it was a cross between a baby and a woman screaming or wailing? it was defenitly an animal. Any ideas? my son could'nt find it, so we thought it was on the allotments. I don't think it was a screech owl, but I am not sure, as I don't really know what they sound like when in full force! Cheers Nell

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Tatjana- Mihaela Thank you for reading. Vixens are indeed beautiful animals.

      Linda Myrshrall thank you for your kind and appreciated comments.

    • profile image

      Linda Myshrall 8 years ago

      Wow, D.A.L. This is great! You have a terrific gift for describing what you see around you, and you could definitely begin a novel with your opening musings on January... Thumbs up on this one.

    • Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

      Tatjana-Mihaela 8 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

      Vixens are really beautiful, thanks for this Hub. I really enjoyed reading it.

      So cute photo!

      Happy 2010!