Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Old brown is doing well

One of my most enduring memories is of sitting at the window late on a winter’s night, the landscape so strongly illuminated by a bright moon that I could see the detail in the fields and hedgerows. Cupping my hands together and blowing into them through slightly spread thumbs I mimicked the wavering hoot of a tawny owl. Moments later an owl responded, initiating a conversation that lasted for many minutes. Even now, the call of a tawny owl sends a shiver through me. The sound is so strong and evocative it rekindles old memories and re-emphasises the stillness I enjoyed, living, as I did, in the middle of the north Norfolk countryside, away from the drone of traffic and noisy youths of our towns and villages.

It is welcome news then, that the tawny owl population seems to be doing rather well, giving every indication that this enigmatic species will continue to call across our countryside. Results from a new survey of tawny owls have highlighted that, contrary to certain recent suggestions, the population has changed little since the last survey in 1989. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this news. After all, the tawny owl has proved itself to be an adaptable species. Although predominantly thought of as a bird of deciduous woodland, the tawny owl has exploited the opportunities provided by the large tracts of land now under conifer plantation. It has also moved into the built environment, where its catholic diet has expanded to take advantage of roosting house sparrows, brown rats and earthworms taken from garden lawns on wet nights.

The tawny owl is the first of our owls to lay its eggs each spring. According to information collected by the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme, on average the first egg is laid on the 25th March. By the time that our barn owls are starting to lay their eggs, tawny owls will already have young in the nest. Such early nesting is reflected in the pattern of calling behaviour. Adults are at their most vocal when establishing breeding territories during the early winter. Once the pattern of territories becomes more rigid, the level of calling falls. Later in the year, once the chicks have fledged, they can be heard begging for food from their parents and, once independent, they will call as they establish territories of their own. By calling at night, when few other birds are vocal, the tawny owl has drawn our attention, though not always in a good way. Hearing a calling owl was once considered an ill omen and as a consequence they were heavily persecuted. Fortunately, things now look much better for the old brown owl.

No comments:

Post a Comment