The old woman of the night
With cryptic plumage, tubular three-lidded eyeballs and a head that can swivel through 270°, the tawny owl is one of the most devastatingly effective predators known to man and mouse, says David Profumo
Often heard but seldom seen, the formidable tawny owl is the archetypal ‘wise old bird’, a nocturnal predator that is the familiar voice of wintry woodland nights.
Largest and most common of our four native owls, Strix aluco—also known as the brown owl, ferny hoolet or (in Gaelic) ‘the old woman of the night’—belongs to a relatively small avian group: there are more than 200 owl species worldwide, the smallest being the Mexican elf owl, which measures barely 6in long and barks like a puppy. tawnies are widely distributed from Scandinavia to the Himalayas and the British population is an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs—a healthy figure, given that they aren’t even found in Ireland.
Cryptically marked to ensure daytime camouflage, the plumage is drab and soft and (although there is a grey morph) usually comprises a herringbone effect of chestnut and pale hues. A portly bird, its broad forehead and frontally set eyes lend it a vaguely humanoid face, apparently staring and sagacious, like some disapproving elizabethan magistrate. the pronounced, concave facial disk acts like a radar dish to enhance hearing, deflecting sound towards the asymmetrically positioned ears. the tubular eyeballs, each with three lids, offer outstanding binocular vision, but are fixed, so the bird has to swivel its head—which it can through 270°.
Owls aren’t especially intelligent, but have long been associated with wisdom. Sacred to Pallas Athena, they featured on Greek coins for several centuries and some species were so common in the capital that ‘taking owls to Athens’ was the equivalent of our ‘coals to Newcastle’.
Sedentary and territorial, brown owls prefer closed-canopy woodland, but may inhabit parks, graveyards and other places that are quietish by day. Being solitary, they were once identified with ruins—‘the owls shall dwell therein,’ predicts Jeremiah, of the fall of Babylon. they can see perfectly well in daylight, but risk being ‘mobbed’ by songbirds and corvids—the subject of numerous fables, plus an insidious insistence by early Christian iconographers that the owl thus represented the Jews being punished for their unenlightened beliefs. fowlers employed decoy owls for snaring or liming its more edible assailants.
A ‘perch-and-wait’ predator, the wood owl is a Catholic feeder. the study of cast gizzard pellets, which contain egested food matter, shows it chiefly eats voles and mice, but will also take small birds (it has a penchant for winter chaffinch) and everything from bats to goldfish.
Its acute hearing allows prey detection in any conditions short of total darkness and it can fly in silken silence due to the serrated edges of the outermost wing feathers. Aluco stoops with its talons outstretched in line with the recurved bill.
there is nothing cuddlesome about the old woman of the night. In 1937, the celebrated wildlife photographer eric Hosking lost his left eye to the claw of a female defending her nest. I bore this in mind last year, when a sizeable tawny entered our bathroom one evening and I had to catch her in a trout net, snapping and hissing in fury (the owl, not me). Hosking later revisited his disastrous nest, wearing a fencing mask. He entitled his memoir An Eye for a Bird.
Not all owls hoot. ‘tu-whit, tu-who— A merry note,/ While greasy Joan doth keel the pot,’ wrote Shakespeare. Many find this mournful rather than merry. the Bard is actually mimicking a duet between courting tawnies; the mellow sound of the male is that drawn out hoot with its vibrato finale, while the female replies kee-wick. On still, moonlit evenings in late autumn, you can hear him preserving his home range and who-wooing his mate—although, since most tawnies are monogamous, he may well be summoning an old flame. No owls construct their own nests. tawnies utilise tree hollows, abandoned dreys, even burrows. Glossy white eggs are laid in March and the fluffy owlets can sometimes be seen floundering around the forest floor before taking wing.
Historically, owls have been treated with a mixture of veneration and mistrust. totemic in Native American culture, a heraldic emblem of vigilance and once synonymous with stoicism, omniscience or liberty, this positive aspect is depicted by the benevolent Archimedes (pet of t. H. White’s Merlyn) or Pooh’s pal Wol. elsewhere, the bird of night is instead portentous, signifying death—chaucer’s ‘prophete of wo and myschaunce’—or the darkness of the human psyche, as in certain nightmarish images by Bosch and Goya.
Although tawny flesh is said to taste oily, its body parts featured widely in the medieval pharmacopeia. the eyeballs were eaten to cure short sightedness, eggs cured both drunkenness and dandruff and the blood eliminated head lice. In Yorkshire, owl broth was a remedy for whooping cough—presumably because the bird managed so much hooting unscathed. No doubt greasy Joan had to keel that pot, too.
‘Historically, owls have been treated with a mixture of veneration and mistrust