The silent hunters

Herts and Mid­dle­sex Wildlife Trust’s Frieda Rum­men­hohl fo­cuses on Herts’ five owls – the county’s ul­ti­mate night hunters

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS -

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

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