Autumn treasure 11: Tawny owl hoot

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10/12/18 The sound of tawny owls isn’t restricted to autumn, or even to night time. They are usually not far away at any time of year, and a few years ago there was a period when I would hear them in the garden more often at about 11am than any other time of day.

Recently I noticed I had been missing them. Autumn nights are not complete without that most magical of sounds: a sonic reproduction of alpaca wool. It is a sound I could snuggle in. What a contrast to the bird that produces it! Loose-feathered and beautiful as tawny owls are, I am under no illusion as to their cuddliness. One glimpse of those piercing eyes and deadly beak and claws instantly corrects any mistake on that front. Their babies are another matter, however. Perhaps the sound is of owlet fuzz rather than alpaca wool. It certainly has the same effect on me as looking at a photograph of a baby owl.

Somehow the dark enhances the sound’s magic. I love the way that the first time I hear it through a closed window, I am not sure if my ears are playing tricks on me. I have to stop what I am doing, keep quiet and wait. Any unsuspecting person in the room chatting with me is interrupted with a sudden, ‘shhhh!’ Another hoot usually follows. Then I open the window and stick my head out, listening with an uncontrollable grin on my face until the hooting stops.

Thinking about tawny owls has made me curious. I knew that Shakespeare got it wrong with his ‘tu-whit tu-whoo’, but I was sure I had read that although both sexes make both noises, they never make them at the same time. I don’t quite know how, but I must have misunderstood what I read, because it appears this is also incorrect: in fact the hoot is the male’s territorial call, and the ‘kee-wick’ is the female’s call, sometimes answering the male’s hoot. After much searching, I did however find one mention of the fact that females may occasionally hoot too1.

I also discovered some other facts about the tawny owl, and it has rather shocked me that I know so little about these birds of whom I am so fond. The reason for their ability to turn their head 270 degrees is that their eyes don’t move in their sockets2. They mostly pair for life, and my association of the hoot with autumn is a result of their breeding habits, not my imagination: territorial calls do indeed increase during the autumn and winter months, as tawny owls can start breeding as early as February.

And… there are no tawny owls in Ireland. This seems inexplicable to me: surely the Irish Sea wouldn’t be enough to keep them out. But conclusions have been drawn that they don’t like to cross large expanses of water. That, along with the fact young tawny owls rarely disperse more than a couple of miles from their hatching place, might be enough to explain it. I have never thought about living in Ireland before, but if I ever did, this absence would be enough to make me reconsider.

I had no idea that a public tawny-owl-hoot survey3 is currently underway, as there is some concern over declining numbers. I will certainly take part. A further (I won’t say final) result of all this owl-pondering is that I am going to buy – or perhaps build – a tawny owl box for myself for Christmas. If the territory of a tawny owl is so restricted, and I hear them so often, it is more than likely they are nesting in my garden.

I know exactly where I will put it up.