Also known as the ‘white owl’ and the ‘screech owl’, the Barn Owl is perhaps the UK’s most familiar owl species – most often encountered as a ghostly shape caught in car headlights, or heard rather than seen with its unearthly screaming call. The Barn Owl hunts over all kinds of open country, and tends to nest on ledges inside farm buildings. It is unmistakeable with its white and gold plumage, heart-shaped face, long legs and small dark eyes. While it is mostly nocturnal, it can also be seen out hunting on summer evenings. It hunts in flight, flying into the breeze for uplift and often hovering before making its strike – its prey mainly located by sound. Barn Owls became very rare following widespread use of the insecticide DDT in the 20th century, but their numbers are now recovering.
This small, long-legged owl with its bright yellow eyes, white-spotted brown plumage and fiercely frowning expression is common in continental Europe, but not native to the UK. It was deliberately introduced here by ornithologists in the 19th century and has spread widely across southern Britain. Little Owls inhabit woodland and parkland with open grassy areas nearby, and are often seen by day, perched in pairs close to their nest site (usually a hole or crack in a mature tree), or flying from tree to tree with a distinctive bounding flight action. They hunt mainly insects, dropping on them from a perch or chasing them on the ground. The Little Owl is the national bird of Greece, and has long been recognised as the emblem of Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom.
The lovely quavering hoot of the Tawny Owl is a familiar night-time sound in woodland, parks and even gardens, but although this is the UK’s most common owl, it is rarely seen, being strictly nocturnal. Tawny Owl pairs stay in their territories year-round and over time build up a great familiarity with the terrain, with favourite hunting watchpoints, roosting sites and a nest site that will be used every year. The owlets leave the nest while still downy and flightless, and climb to safe spots among the branches where they wait for food from their parents. The largest of the UK’s owl species, the Tawny Owl is a powerful predator and other owls number among its prey. It is found throughout Great Britain, but is absent from Ireland.
A true nomad, the Short-eared Owl is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, occurring on all continents except Antarctica. Individuals may travel great distances, stopping to breed where feeding conditions are good. In Britain the species breeds mainly on upland moor in the north and west, but becomes more widespread in winter (and more numerous, as birds arrive from mainland Europe, sometimes in large numbers). A diurnal owl of open moorland and rough grassland, it hunts on the wing, patrolling back and forth close to the ground, and dropping feet-first upon voles and other prey. In some winters, half a dozen or more may be seen ‘working’ the same field, with coastal areas particularly likely to attract large numbers. The Short-eared Owl is a long-winged owl with grey-brown and sandy, heavily streaked plumage, paler than the similar Long-eared Owl, and with yellow, staring eyes and tiny ear tufts.
This beautiful, slim, orange-eyed owl is named after its large, cat-like ear tufts, which help to break up its outline as it roosts by day. In the UK it breeds mainly in upland pine forests, but in Ireland (where it does not face competition from Tawny Owls) it is more common and lives in a wider range of habitats. Though the Long-eared Owl nests in woodland, often in the old nest of another bird, it prefers to hunt on adjacent open countryside. Its prey mainly comprises small rodents, which it catches either by pouncing from a perch or by searching in flight. The waiting chicks beg with a distinctive ‘squeaky-gate’ call. Long-eared Owls disperse widely in winter, with residents joined by visitors from the Continent, and form winter roosts (which may hold ten or more birds) in thick scrubland.