Uncover the secrets of the mysterious tawny owls
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.”
FAMILY LIFE IS COMPLICATED
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.
CUTE… BUT TOUGH
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