THE Tawny owl, Strix alco

The tawny owl is not only Britain's most common species of owl but also the most nocturnal of our owls. It is a common misconception that all owls are strictly nocturnal  the Little Owl is often abroad in daylight as is the Short eared owl.

Short eared owls are often abroad during daylight hours. Photograph courtesy of Steve Garvie Creative Commons Share alike.

Indeed, there is a short period of the year , when there are owlets to feed, the tawny owl may be encountered hunting later in the morning and earlier at night than is normally the case. For the rest of the year tawny owls are very nocturnal and this activity is rarely observed but their presence is often betrayed by their familiar " Tu-whit-Tu whooo" calls that can be heard at almost any time of the year after darkness cloaks the countryside. This is particularly true  during late winter when birds are defending their territories.

Tawny owl -photograph courtesy of K.M Hanche {Arad] creative Commons Share Alike.

Description of the Tawny owl.

The plumage of this species can be very variable ranging in colour from a rich chestnut tawny through various shades of buff brown , brown and grey brown  to greyish white..The greyer varieties are more likely to be found in the northern regions of northern England and particularly so across the border into Scotland, however, they are by no means common.

Tawny owls are about 38cm long with a wing span of 99 cm. The male weighs 420 gms and the larger female 520 gms. They have a stout body, large head and black eyes. The pale greenish-yellow bill is hooked and set in the feathered facial disc. The legs and feet are feathered. The dagger like talons on each foot hold the prey in a lethal grip. The hind toe on each foot is designed to pierce the prey. the feathers on the legs and feet are a protection from the bites of rodents.

In relation to its body size the rounded wings are medium long. the tail medium length. the neck short and the hooked bill does not project. The flight is slow and flapping in common with other large owls.

During daylight hours the whereabouts of a roosting owl is may be discovered and betrayed by excitable mobbing of small birds. At other times the owl will roost, usually by the side of the trunk, its camouflage allowing it to remain concealed from prying eyes.


This species also referred to as the brown owl and wood owl is a bird of woodlands, farmland and even well wooded parks and gardens. As previously stated the birds are more often heard than seen. The familiar "Tu-whit-Tu whooo" call is in fact a call between two owls. The "Kewick" Tu-whit is a contact call made most often by the female, the "Tu-whooo" hoot call is the male immediately answering hence the Tu-whit-Tu whooo. They make other contact calls which are often heard as a solo call from either bird.

Tawny owls pair for life and may be seen together at all times of the year and they remain in their territory throughout the year, often for many years in succession. As early as October or November Owls start to establish their territorial rights. Young owls of the previous year will now be ready to breed and will be seeking a territory of their own. This objective can lead to noisy and aggressive disputes especially if young owls try to establish a territory that overlaps one that is already occupied. The male will decide and defend the boundaries while the female will procure a nest hole.

later a courtship ritual commences when the male will bring the female food. This acts to strengthen the bond between the two birds but has the added bonus of building up the females strength for the coming breeding season. During this courtship period the male will chase the female around the territory, at this time they are even more vocal as the birds make a diverse range of screeching noises. 

Tawny owls tend to pair for life  photograph by Dal

Nest ,eggs and breeding.

Once the female has chosen a location for the nest which is usually within the hole of a tree, but this is not always the case. There are records of nests being encountered in old chimneys, ruins, old nests of other birds such as those of the crow or magpie and there are even records of nests being located on the ground.

The nest is nothing more than a scrape and there is no lining. the eggs are typical of owls being round and of a white colour.they usually nuumber between 2-4. The eggs are incubated by the female for about four weeks. In the north they are laid in laid March and early April which coincides with the breeding season of voles and mice, the main stay of the birds diet. The diet is supplemented by birds and insects.

Once the chicks hatch the male will bring food for his hungry offspring and his mate. It is only when the chicks are about 7 days old will the female make short hunting forays. Even after the age of 5 weeks and the owlets leave the nest they are still dependent on their parents for food.

Even at this age the owlets depend on their parents for food and continue to do so for several weeks.

Photograph courtesy of Artur Mikolajewski, {Creative commons Share Alike}

This will remain the case for a several weeks to come. During this period the owlets are taught how to feed themselves and they will learn how to establish territories of their own. During the nesting period and for a couple of weeks when the owlets leave the nest the owlets are vulnerable. The parents defend their young aggressively and they have been known to attack humans that have inadvertently strayed to close.


The tawny owl is Britain's most common species of owl. A recent survey found that tawny owls visited more gardens in North Yorkshire than any other county in Britain.

During an average week in 2010 8% of local gardens hosted the species, more than double the average elsewhere. These amazing statistics have emerged thanks to the simple observations of hundreds of local house holders who participate weekly in the all year round BTO  Garden Bird Watch Survey.

There are no current Conservation concerns for this species. 

UK conservation status 2021

UK- Amber listed due to declines in population/distribution of over 25% over the last thirty years or so.

Europe-Species of least concern. 

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Also see a comprehensive article via the links banner Tawny Owl { Birds of Europe } with observations from past ornithologists and other eminent writers.Description/images/latest conservation status.  

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