The silent hunters
Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Frieda Rummenhohl focuses on Herts’ five owls – the county’s ultimate night hunters
The lives of Herts’ five owl species
As dusk falls, deadly hunters are taking to the skies, slipping from their roosts and wheeling silently above hedgerows and through woodland.
An owl’s best weapon is its incredible hearing. Their flat faces and specialised feathers focus sound towards their ears, allowing them to accurately pinpoint prey from even the slightest sound.
Contrary to popular belief, an owl’s vision is only slightly better than ours and much of their ‘night vision’ is actually due to their excellent hearing. Their forward-facing eyes cannot move in their sockets, which is why, remarkably, they turn their head through 270 degrees.
Unlike most birds, owls make virtually no noise when they fly. Their feathers break the air flow over their wings to reduce the sound and their soft, velvety down further muffles any noise.
Owls have long had their place in folklore. In Britain, the owl – in particular the barn owl (above) with its ghost-like appearance – had a sinister reputation for being a bird of darkness that often symbolised misfortune. Some even believed the eerie screech of an owl meant imminent death or evil. In contrast, in Greek mythology, the little owl (top, right) was the goddess of wisdom Athene’s favourite animal, inhabiting the Acropolis and protecting Greek armies in times of war. The ancients believed owls possessed an ‘inner light’ which gave them night vision.
The UK is home to six types of owl, five of which can be found in Hertfordshire, where they inhabit farmland, woodlands, parks and grasslands. Most of our owls are nocturnal or crepuscular – active at dawn and dusk – and usually shy away from human encounters, making them hard to spot. Autumn and winter are generally the best time of year to go out to look for them. Here’s what you may spot:
An elusive inhabitant of coniferous woodland and undisturbed farmland, the long-eared owl is smaller than a woodpigeon. It is mottled brown with big, orange-red eyes and long wings spanning up to a metre. Its distinctive ‘ears’ are actually feathery tufts which are raised in alarm.
Long-eared owls are incredibly secretive, its cry – a soft, elongated ‘hooo’ – being the only sign to give away its presence in a dark landscape. It hunts its prey by sweeping clearings and fields in a zig-zag flying pattern. Sadly, long-eared owls no longer breed in the county, but small numbers do appear in the winter months, usually roosting colonially in dense bushes.
Snow-white but for subtly marked, buffy-brown upperparts, the barn owl has been viewed as the ghost of the countryside for centuries, as historical monikers such as ‘Demon owl’ prove. Not so surprising when you hear its piercing shrieks and hissing calls. With its distinctive heartshaped face, big black eyes, strikingly pale plumage and silent flight, barn owls are easy to identify and a treat to see.
With its characteristically stern expression and rather comical size – standing barely taller than a starling at under 25cm – the little owl is the smallest member of the family. Introduced to the UK from mainland Europe in the 19th century, it has made its home here without posing a conservation risk to ecosystems. It can frequently be seen in daylight, perched on a fence post or rock, quietly scanning the ground for prey. Little owls are birds of mixed farmland – roosting in cavities of farm buildings or in mature hedges.
The tawny’s intricate feather pattern – mottled reddish-brown with a paler underside – is the perfect camouflage in woodland, so finding one by day can be quite a task. Look out for the telltale behaviour of smaller birds – repeated alarm-calling and mobbing – which can give away an owl otherwise invisible in thick foliage near the trunk of a favoured tree. Its short wings are perfectly adapted to woodland, giving it great manoeuvrability in tight spaces. Extremely territorial, it will fiercely defend its young.
Easier to find in autumn and winter when they arrive from Scandinavia, Russia or Iceland, the short-eared owl has intricately mottled and streaked plumage, large eyes and broad wings.
‘Shorties’ can often be seen during daylight hours, with marshes, unimproved grassland and mixed farmland its favourite haunts. It can be easily identified by its rather floppy flight, often likened to a bats, which it uses to sweep a couple of feet above open fields and grasslands, before swooping on prey, feet-first.
Like the long-eared owl, its ‘ears’ are feather tufts, but these are often too short to be visible unless raised when the bird is alarmed.
ABOVE:Barn owl – long associated with forebodingRIGHT:The perfectly camouflaged tawny owlTOP RIGHT: Little owl , not much bigger than a starlingFAR RIGHT: Long-eared owl. It’s ‘ears’ are really feathers – raised in alarm