Nightly sings the staring owl....

A tawny owl.

A tawny owl. - Credit: Archant

To-whit! To-who! Who has not heard this ‘merry note’ on a dark winter’s night, perhaps echoing across a woodland or park, and wondered at its source? Of course, we know it’s an owl but have we ever seen one, I wonder, other than in children’s story books such as AA Milne’s Wol or Beatrix Potter’s Old Brown? Perhaps, a bit like the cuckoo in spring, we are familiar with the tawny owl’s “To-whit! To-who!” call but not with the actual bird.

When Shakespeare coined this now familiar onomatopoeia for the tawny owl he was both right and wrong in his seasonal observations. Right firstly because, come the heavy frosts, Tawny owls suddenly break out from their apparent slumbers and become increasingly active over the winter months.

As the author, Mike Dilger, says: “The…hoot of this most suburban of all our owls, along with the bark of a fox, must represent the classic soundtrack to a cold winter’s night.”

But Shakespeare was also wrong (forgivably) in that he attributed the famous “To-whit! To-who!” to just one owl. In fact, that familiar call involves two courting owls: a female’s inquisitive ‘keewick’ or ‘To-whit’ followed – hopefully for her – by a longer, drawn-out ‘hoo-ooo’ or ‘To-who’. Heard most often a couple of hours after dusk, these two calls together let us know we have a pair of owls in the neighbourhood, perhaps viewing our garden as part of their carefully defined and defended territory.

A few nights ago I heard a terrible wailing call in the garden and rushed outside assuming it to be a fox up to no good by the chicken coop. However, as I stepped outside, the wailing call passed straight over my head and I realized it was a tawny owl, most probably a female, calling as she flew.

The tone of the call was one of alarm, possibly one of territorial indignation directed at a potential rival or invader. A shiver went down my spine and I wondered if that was the intended effect for the invading outsider.

Tawny owls are truly birds of the night and in particular chill and clear winter nights when they are skilled and voracious hunters, eating almost anything small that moves or takes their fancy. Lords of the night they fly on silent wings their eyes and ears piercing the darkness. However, if you should happen upon a tawny owl in the daylight hours any delusions of grandeur rapidly vanish as the owl, more often than not, paints a pathetic picture unmasked from the cover of darkness.

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Their presence is usually given away by a paparazzi of small birds beside themselves with alarm on discovering a roosting owl. Sitting looking very dejected and constantly mobbed by everything from robins to blackbirds, the tawny owl is a picture of grumpiness: disturbed from sleep and reluctantly flying to find a new hole to hide in! Once out of sight, the mob of angry small birds usually disperses quickly and the owl is left in peace to await his element of night.

The recent burst in owl activity in my garden has inspired me to build an owl box to site in one of our tall trees. It’s bit of a long shot but I wonder, given the owls’ regularity in passing through our garden, whether they could be tempted to roost or even breed in the garden.

There’s no shortage of suitable habitat not far from the garden in the form of parkland and a golf course and yet I know tawny owls are not adverse to rubbing elbows with us humans. I even wonder if they might prefer it given the bounty of mice and sometimes rats that visit the garden.

Either way, I am not expecting overnight success and I may only succeed in providing shelter for the ubiquitous grey squirrels! Watch this space!