The gap between one breeding season and the next is surprisingly short, with some birds already initiating this season’s attempt. The earliest of our nesters is the Tawny Owl, so it was unsurprising to hear of a pair busy settling into their nestbox well before Christmas. This particular nestbox has a camera fitted, allowing the owner to watch the nesting antics of the resident pair. Although I refer to them as the resident pair, it is likely that the male of the pair is new, the previous male having disappeared part way through the 2011 nesting attempt.
Tawny Owls are highly territorial birds and their characteristic hooting calls will have been heard by many through the dark evenings of November and December. Territory is extremely important to a Tawny Owl; not only does it contain the nest site but it also holds the small mammal prey that the owls rely on. Hunting in the dark is not easy, so knowledge of a local patch – in the form of a territory – is likely to be particularly important, the owl soon learning the best perches from which to hunt.
Most Tawny Owl nests are located in large tree cavities, though they will take to nestboxes and have sometimes been found using the old stick nests of other species, like crows. Very occasionally, Tawny Owls have been found nesting on the ground, something that tends to reflect a lack of suitable nesting cavities (e.g. within coniferous woodland). The nest itself is really just a shallow scrape, made in any debris that the cavity happens to contain. Two or three eggs are typical, each laid with a gap of a couple of days, but clutches of up to five or even six eggs are possible.
Female Tawny Owls are very good parents, sitting tight on the eggs and they are not easily put off the completed clutch. This can cause them problems in some (rare) cases, where a Jackdaw or other species builds a nest on top of the owl, effectively entombing her within the cavity. Once the eggs hatch, the female will readily attack human intruders, striking at them with her talons. There are even instances where unfortunate observers have lost an eye or been scarred by a female Tawny Owl.
The earliest Tawny Owls may already be on eggs, but most pairs will not get started until late February, the first young appearing in the nest from mid-March. Our other owls start breeding a little later but even they may have young in the nest from April. While spring may still seem a long way off, it is heartening to think that the nesting season has started and that new life is on its way.