Tawny Owl (AKA Brown Owl)


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The Tawny Owl is our most common owl throughout the UK, but it is seldom seen thanks to its woody camouflage. Most people recognise the “twit toowoo” call of an owl without recognising it as a Tawny Owl, however this sound is actually made up of both the male and female communicating with each other rather than a single birds call. (The female makes the ‘too-wit’ sound and the male answers with ‘too-woo’.) Tawny Owls are particularly vocal during the winter months (November to February) when they are busy defending their breeding territories in readiness for their early start to the breeding season. If you’re keen to hear one, this is the best time of year as long as you can stand the colder nights that is.


It’s quite a stocky rounded bird about the same size as a pigeon. Brown down its back with a lighter patchy underside, the tawny owl has dark eyes within a rusty facial disk but lacks the ear tufts found on many of our other UK owls. In flight its short broad rounded wings and a short tail help it to manoeuvre easily through its woodland habitat while hunting.

(Length: 37-39cm; wingspan: 94-104cm)


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A widespread breeding species in England, Wales and Scotland but not found in Ireland or most of the islands surrounding the UK.

Birds are mainly residents with established pairs probably never leaving their territories.

Principally a woodland bird, Tawny’s also occur around farmland with plenty of trees and overgrown hedges and are also often found in urban areas and gardens with mature trees. During the daylight hours they tend to remain in cover up against a tree trunk thanks again to their camouflage. You may be lucky enough to spot them during daylight hours when they are pestered by frustrated songbirds unhappy at their daytime presence.


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Tawny owls mainly feed on small mammals although they can have quite a varied diet. The bank vole, wood mouse, and shrews are most common, while field voles are often caught around farms. Other small mammals including small Rats, Starlings and even Grey Squirrels have also been noted in their diet and they have even been seen taking advantage of larger animal carcases.  Invertebrates can also be a large part of their diet, especially earthworms and beetles. Young birds will also be taken especially in the summer during the breeding season with the growing availability of nestlings and fledglings. They usually hunt from a perch, dropping down on their prey.




Tawny Owls are very early nesters and are busy establishing breeding territories from November onwards. They will typically use quite an exposed cavity in a tree, however they will sometimes use a ready built crow’s nest or squirrel drey. They will also nest in specially designed Tawny Owl boxes though less readily than a barn owl will. Tawny Owls are also know to occasionally take advantage of buildings where more preferable nest sites are unavailable.

Eggs can be laid as early as January however few eggs are laid before mid-March. Evidence does suggest that urban birds nest and lay their eggs earlier in Urban areas.

Tawny Owls generally lay between 2 and 5 eggs (larger numbers have been recorded ) subsequent eggs are laid within 2 day intervals. The numbers laid generally reflect on the food levels for the area with higher numbers being recorded laid in bumper years.

Each egg is incubated for 30 days and the chicks will be fed by both parents. During periods of less food availability, asynchronous hatching allows for larger nestlings to feed on their younger siblings.


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Important Note: The fluffy young can sometimes be found on the ground below the nest site and worried householders will often remove these taking them to the vet. Unless the chicks are actually under threat of death or injury from a predator it is best to leave them be. They have a surprising amount of agility and will readily climb back up the trunk of the tree to reach the nest hole.


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The young will leave the nest around 25 days after hatching, however they are still unable to fly and will sit in branches surrounding the nest “branching”. After around 10 days of branching the young should be ready to take their first flights. They will remain dependent on their parents for food for another 10-12weeks before finally setting off on their own and dispersing from breeding grounds in Autumn.


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Tawny owls were severely persecuted in the second half of the 19th century considerably reducing their population. Recovery began in the 20th century with a more enlightened attitude to the species and their numbers seemed to stabilise by the 1950s. Numbers appear to have fluctuated since this period with differing agricultural processes, land management techniques and habitat losses due to increased housing demands. Unfortunately a steady decline seemed to start again in the 1980s which continues to this day. This is most marked in Scotland and south-west England and is mainly thought to be linked to agricultural intensification processes reducing small mammal prey numbers as well as the ever reducing availability of their woodland habitats through increased housing and commercial requirements.

There are currently thought to be around 19,400 Pairs and the numbers show a declining trend

Legal Protections covering Tawny Owls

For more information on the laws protecting Tawny Owls please follow this link.

Article Sources

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