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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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