Un­cover the se­crets of the mys­te­ri­ous tawny owls

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The theme from The Great Es­cape has been in my head for days, ever since I scooted down the tun­nel lead­ing from Robert Fuller’s house to his new wildlife hide. Ac­cess is via a trolley – you lie down and haul your­self along by a rope, just like Steve McQueen and Richard At­ten­bor­ough. As well as get­ting you into the hide un­no­ticed, it’s also jolly good fun.

The view from the hide is pretty un­usual. To the right is a dry­s­tone struc­ture with a den for stoats and a wooden maze to test their flex­i­bil­ity.

To the left, an ar­ti­fi­cial bad­ger sett is un­der con­struc­tion. Be­hind us, a weasel snoozes in a heated nest­box. Out­side is a bird ta­ble loaded with de­frosted day-old chicks, strapped down so they can’t be car­ried off – Robert wants his vis­i­tors to feed where he can see them. Tonight we’re con­cen­trat­ing on tawny owls, which Robert has been watch­ing, pho­tograph­ing and paint­ing here for 18 years. “They’re chal­leng­ing,” he says. “Re­ally se­cre­tive. The first time I saw one on a fence-post just down there I ran for my cam­era but, of course, when I got back it had gone. I built a nest­box out of an old stump, mounted it in a tree and there have been tawny owls there ever since.” This was good for the owls but, for Robert, get­ting good pho­tos means lur­ing the birds into the open.

“The sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing started when I de­cided to help a young male kestrel,” he re­calls. “I be­gan putting out mice that I caught for him. When he had a fam­ily, I put the food out late at night so he’d have some­thing first thing.

It wasn’t long be­fore the owls cot­toned on and soon I was feed­ing them ev­ery night, too.”

Robert’s ex­per­tise with owls soon be­came local com­mon knowl­edge and peo­ple started bring­ing him ‘res­cued’ owlets. Most of th­ese were tawny owls.

“The thing about tawnies is they fledge too soon and end up on the floor,” says Robert. “Peo­ple as­sume they’ve been aban­doned when, in fact, the par­ents are still close by.” Hand-rear­ing is a last re­sort be­cause owlets have so much to learn from their par­ents. Since Robert knew the adult pair he was feed­ing would never strug­gle to find food, he de­cided to try fos­ter­ing the owlets with them.

“We were wing­ing it,” he ad­mits. “We didn’t have nest­box cam­eras then, so we had no idea what was go­ing on in­side. But tawny owls are phe­nom­e­nal par­ents and they’re used to rear­ing chicks of var­ied ages be­cause their own broods nat­u­rally hatch over sev­eral days.”

Th­ese days, when spring ‘or­phans’ ar­rive, those that are large enough are ringed by Jean Thorpe – an amaz­ing woman who re­ha­bil­i­tates most of North and East York­shire’s in­jured rap­tors – and Jack Ash­tonBooth, an­other local rap­tor spe­cial­ist. Robert trans­fers the owlets to the box on the first night, which oc­ca­sion­ally means adding more than one at a time. Does that mean the par­ents can’t count or recog­nise their own? “No, they can’t. They’re pretty stupid re­ally,” he chuck­les. “They’re not colo­nial, so there’s no real ben­e­fit in recog­nis­ing their own chicks. They have such a strong urge to nur­ture – much bet­ter than barn owls. You wouldn’t want a barn owl as a mother, but the tawnies are for­mi­da­ble.”

Robert is reg­u­larly at­tacked. “It’s like some­one throw­ing half a brick at you. A half­brick with claws.”

For­mi­da­ble is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Pi­o­neer­ing bird pho­tog­ra­pher Eric Hosk­ing fa­mously lost an eye to a tawny owl he had been watch­ing and Robert is reg­u­larly at­tacked when re­turn­ing owlets to the box. “It’s like some­one throw­ing half a brick at you. A half-brick with claws. I’ve been punc­tured on my back and my head. I used to wear a chain­saw hel­met with a vi­sor, but they come in so hard, I was wor­ried they might hurt them­selves. So now I wear a leather hat with ear flaps, a vi­sor and two Buffs around my neck.”


Ear­lier that evening, we’d walked down the val­ley to a nest­box, one of three made from tree stumps and now home to tawny and barn owls, and kestrels. On the way, Robert ex­plained that last year the tawny pair raised 10 chicks – four of their own and six sur­ro­gates.

This year, how­ever, didn’t start so well. The fe­male laid three eggs, but one failed to hatch. The first owlet to emerge was killed by the male, which un­usu­ally, is sup­port­ing two fam­i­lies in 2017. “He started pinch­ing food from the nest to take to the other brood, which had al­ready hatched,” says Robert. “I think he got con­fused. He ar­rived in the box, the fe­male raised up to show him his baby and he just took it.” The fe­male tried to in­ter­vene but it was too late. So, as it turns out, only one of the owlets she is car­ing for is the pair’s own. The first sur­ro­gate owlet also per­ished after be­ing at­tacked by sheep. “That hap­pens a lot,” ex­plains Robert. “You’d think the main risk to fledglings on the ground would be foxes, badgers or stoats, but no. Sheep see them mov­ing and tram­ple or head-butt them into the ground.”

Like many of the birds re­leased on Robert’s patch, this year’s adoptee owls came from Jean Thorpe. None of them are true sib­lings. “You can see they’re dif­fer­ent,” Rob tells me. “Nor­mally owlets in a fam­ily have sim­i­lar col­oration, but th­ese ones are a mix­ture – some are re­ally pale.”

We ar­rive un­der a glo­ri­ous spread­ing wych elm. “They love this tree,” says Robert. “The way the branches twist cre­ates level perches with good shel­ter. They only re­ally use the nest­box when there are no leaves on the trees, so after the young fledge, they’re out all the time. There’s one now.” I crane my neck. Robert has to guide my eye – at first all I can see is leaves and branches, but then I see the owlet. It’s big, al­most fully grown. Its plumage is cin­na­mon and buff, fluffy on the chest, but de­vel­op­ing the tree-bark adult tex­ture on its back and sides. Its face swivels in the sur­round­ing hood of feath­ers, like the bezel of a watch. Robert sets up a tele­scope and I take a squint.

The ‘wise owl’ idea is non­sense; th­ese aren’t brainy birds by any mea­sure. But you can see why they have gained that rep­u­ta­tion. Their big eyes ap­pear all-see­ing. Hav­ing spot­ted one chick, we quickly see an­other, and an­other. In a few min­utes, all five are ac­counted for, then Robert spots their mother, watch­ing us. I can clearly see the fleshy pads of her toes press­ing into the branch, while the scalpel-tips of her talons rest lightly on the bark.

Tawny owls have moved from a ‘Green’ to ‘Am­ber’ list­ing due to their de­clin­ing

The ‘wise owl’ idea is non­sense… But you can see why they gained that rep­u­ta­tion

num­bers, though the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO) points out that stan­dard sur­vey meth­ods (the species’ last na­tional sur­vey was in 2005) may be un­re­li­able for such se­cre­tive birds. Bad weather, in­fan­ti­ci­dal par­ents and sheep aren’t the only threats. Over 65 per cent of dead tawnies re­ported to the BTO are killed by traf­fic. This is a skewed statis­tic, be­cause road fa­tal­i­ties are more likely to be recorded than other deaths, but the risk is still sig­nif­i­cant, es­pe­cially as road­sides are good places to find car­rion or hunt small prey. If an owl killed on a road is a par­ent, the en­tire brood may be doomed.


Dis­ease is a se­ri­ous prob­lem too, es­pe­cially tri­chomono­sis. This is caused by a pro­to­zoan par­a­site that in­fects the moist tis­sues of birds’ mouths and throats. It’s the same con­di­tion that has dev­as­tated green­finch num­bers, but it’s also com­mon in pi­geons (where it’s known as canker) and birds of prey (in which it’s called frounce). Like kestrels and spar­rowhawks, tawny owls eat dead or sickly birds and are thus highly sus­cep­ti­ble. As the in­fec­tion pro­gresses, le­sions on the throat pre­vent feed­ing. “It’s re­ally un­pleas­ant – they’re weak and wheez­ing, and if you open the beak it’s all yel­low in­side,” says Robert.

“It af­fects whole fam­i­lies, be­cause par­ents feed in­fected prey to their young, or they die and the owlets starve.”

After con­firm­ing the fam­ily are safe and well, we go to check on their neigh­bours. An­other huge nest­box, a few trees along is home to barn owls. They’ve man­aged to foul the lens of the cam­era mounted in­side the box, so Robert has to clean it. There are eight owlets in­side, he tells me, as he scales the lad­der. He reaches in and im­me­di­ately a fury of hiss­ing erupts – the same sound as air es­cap­ing from sev­eral in­flat­able mat­tresses.


Robert ducks as a shut­tle­cock of white feath­ers ex­plodes over his shoul­der and para­chutes into the grass. “Oops. Keep an eye on that one!” he grins. “I’ll get it back in a minute.” Five min­utes later, the lens is clean again, the owlet is safely back in the box and we’re head­ing back to the ‘Great Es­cape’ hide.

Soon after 10pm, the call­ing starts: a cho­rus of ‘kerrr-icks’ all around us. The fe­male ap­pears on a fallen branch at the end of the gar­den and is joined by an owlet, then I make out the sil­hou­ettes of two more on a high feed­ing ta­ble.

After a minute or two, the adult takes off and flies to­wards us. Her huge wings are cloud-soft, but she lands with a heavy clunk on the ta­ble. She seems as sur­prised as I am and looks down at her feet, bob­bing as if try­ing to work out whether they re­ally are as big as they look. I sup­press a gig­gle and she turns to­wards us. There’s some­thing teddy-bear­ish about her round face and ob­sid­ian eyes. Then she bends, seizes one of the day-old chicks and pulls. She lifts her wings for balance, re­veal­ing mus­cu­lar legs that flex to take the strain. I hear sinew rip­ping as the meal is dis­mem­bered. This is one badass teddy-bear.

They’ll keep com­ing un­til Septem­ber, Robert ex­pects. “The adults par­ent them un­til Au­gust, but then things start to break down and by Oc­to­ber it’s war.” Au­tumn is the time for young to find ter­ri­to­ries of their own. Th­ese chicks might not go far though. Young from pre­vi­ous years have moved to the next val­ley, where Robert has erected more nest­boxes.

“They re­mem­ber this place and sneak back for food when they have their own young. I know it’s them be­cause I find day-old chicken re­mains in their boxes.” There must be spe­cial sat­is­fac­tion in know­ing so many of th­ese birds would not have sur­vived with­out help. “Yes, it’s magic,” agrees Robert. “Res­cu­ing them is one thing, but a nat­u­ral start is the only way they can learn every­thing they need to know. My job is to help them stay wild.”

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: A young owl comes to feed in front of Robert; a fe­male tawny broods her own owlets and sur­ro­gates; Wet chicks are brought in­side to dry off be­fore be­ing re­turned to their nest; A young owls’ cryptic plumage helps it avoid...

ABOVE: Robert re­pro­duces the owls on can­vas BE­LOW: Tree stumps make great nest­boxes, al­though they are heavy

ABOVE: A male and fe­male perch side by side in Oc­to­ber, hav­ing reestab­lished their ter­ri­tory by driv­ing the young birds out of the area LEFT: Robert checks a res­cued owlet be­fore in­tro­duc­ing it into a nest­box

Two owlets make them­selves at home in Robert’s nest stump ABOVE: An adult tawny snoozes in a kestrel nest­box


Young tawny owls of­ten perch to­gether so the adults can keep a watch­ful eye on them. Par­ents will de­fend their off­spring vig­or­ously from preda­tors

ABOVE: A male tawny ar­rives with a meal for a young­ster

BE­LOW: Grounded owlets can end up wa­ter­logged in bad weather and un­able to fly

RIGHT: A young tawny owl takes cover from mob­bing black­birds un­der Robert’s car

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