discover the fascinating world of the tawny owl, the most well-known nocturnal bird of prey, and learn about its unique characteristics, habits, and adaptations in this insightful guide.

The Tawny Owl: The Most Well-Known Nocturnal Bird of Prey

GardenBy Jun 21, 2024

The Tawny Owl: The Most Well-Known Nocturnal Bird of Prey

The Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) is the most well-known nocturnal bird of prey in Europe, particularly in France, where it is a protected species. Despite being historically considered a bird of ill omen due to its call, the Tawny Owl is actually a shy and elusive bird that keeps its distance from humans more than the Barn Owl. Let’s take a closer look at this magnificent rodent-hunting bird.

Who is the Tawny Owl?

The Tawny Owl is a medium-sized bird of prey. It measures approximately 40 cm in height and weighs between 400 g and 600 g, with a wingspan ranging from 94 cm to 105 cm. This fascinating bird is also known as the “brown owl” because of its brown plumage and nocturnal call.

The Tawny Owl has a robust body with square shoulders, a rounded head, and two large black eyes surrounded by a crown of feathers. Its dark eyes are forward-facing, like many other owls, and they remain fixed, meaning they do not rotate. To look at what’s happening on the sides or behind it, the Tawny Owl can almost fully rotate its head thanks to its highly flexible neck. The Tawny Owl is very sensitive to light and can be easily dazzled, but it’s important to note that it is a nocturnal bird that spends most of the day sleeping. This beautiful bird’s facial mask is divided by a dark line running from its forehead to its beak, which is straw-colored and topped with a white ‘X’.

Like many other nocturnal birds of prey, the Tawny Owl exhibits two color morphs—gray and rufous. In the gray morph, the plumage is gray-brown with dark spots, and its mantle is bordered by a clearly visible white or cream-colored band. The underparts are white or light beige and finely streaked with brown.

In the rufous morph, the plumage is a warm and vibrant reddish-brown, tinged with the same patterns as the gray morph.

The Tawny Owl has large wings that allow it to fly silently and glide effortlessly thanks to its wide and powerful wingbeats and specialized feathers that minimize air friction. Like most raptors, this magnificent bird has sharp, cutting talons that it uses to catch its prey, as well as a hooked beak.

While it may not be easy to spot the Tawny Owl due to its timid nature, its distinctive call is often heard. It is a very vocal bird, especially at the beginning of the year when it marks its territory. The male produces a unique hooting sound, earning it the nickname “brown owl.” The female, on the other hand, is more discreet and emits high-pitched cries resembling sonorous squeaks, which can be translated as a response to the male’s hooting.

A Sedentary Bird

The Tawny Owl is a strictly sedentary nocturnal bird that actively defends its territory throughout the year. While it may occasionally vocalize during the day, it only flies at night to avoid daylight movement.

During daylight hours, the Tawny Owl roosts in various locations such as tree cavities, dense shrubs, ivy, or rocky crevices. When nesting nearby, it becomes highly aggressive and is not hesitant to fiercely attack anyone who gets too close.

Habitat of the Tawny Owl

The Tawny Owl is found throughout Europe. However, it has not established itself in Ireland or northern Scandinavia, where other species are more dominant. It can be found as far east as Siberia and as far south as North Africa, the Middle East, and even northern India. Within this extensive range, seven subspecies can be observed.

The Tawny Owl is widespread in France and thrives in forested habitats, particularly in open and semi-open wooded areas. However, it is now commonly found in urban areas, especially in parks and wooded gardens where it can find tall trees for nesting and perching. It can also take up residence in tree cavities, attics, or lofts in houses.

While trees are essential for nesting, the Tawny Owl is adaptable to a wide variety of tree species and habitats, ranging from deciduous and mixed forests to thickets and riparian zones. However, it does not favor dense old-growth forests or coniferous forests.

A Carnivorous Diet

The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous bird and is particularly skilled at opportunistically adapting its diet to its environment and living space, varying it according to the seasons.

In its natural habitat, the Tawny Owl primarily feeds on rodents, such as voles, mice, rats, and field mice. It also preys on insectivores like shrews and birds. In urban areas, it readily feeds on starlings, pigeons, jays, and even adult and nestling sparrows, which it catches at night, especially at dawn or dusk.

Being an insectivore itself, the Tawny Owl also enjoys supplementing its diet with moths, beetles, ladybugs, and cockchafers, as well as various other small animals like earthworms, reptiles, amphibians, squirrels, and fish found in bodies of water!

The Tawny Owl relies on its hearing, rather than its sight, to hunt. It uses its exceptional hearing to locate prey from its perch. It then swallows its prey whole unless it is exceptionally large, in which case it will dissect it. It later regurgitates the excess food in the form of pellets.

It seems that males and females have different hunting habits. Perhaps to avoid competition, they target slightly different prey and hunt in different areas, with the female having a broader and more diverse hunting spectrum than the male.

Reproduction of the Tawny Owl

As a cavity-nesting species, the Tawny Owl nests in cavities, typically found in old trees. It can also use crevices in rock faces, abandoned nests of other species, or, more rarely, unoccupied or abandoned human-made structures such as old attics, sheds, or barns.

The Tawny Owl builds its nest between late February and early July. However, instead of building a nest, the female simply lays her 3 to 5 white eggs directly onto the nest substrate. She lays one egg every 2 to 4 days and then incubates them alone for 28 to 30 days, while the male provides food.

Once the chicks hatch, they are cared for by their mother for about two weeks. During this time, the father takes on the responsibility of providing food for the family. After these initial weeks, both parents hunt together to feed their growing offspring.

The young owls leave the nest at around 5 to 6 weeks old but remain in the vicinity and continue to beg for food from their parents. They only become truly independent at around 3 to 4 months old. Despite this, most of them do not survive their first year of life.

Is the Tawny Owl a Garden Ally?

Apart from the Tawny Owl’s calls, which some people may consider a nuisance, this bird has no detrimental effects in a garden. On the contrary, it can help keep gardens free of pests by eliminating worms, insects, and rodents that can cause damage to vegetable gardens and flowers. The Tawny Owl particularly enjoys feeding on rats and mice. Therefore, it is wise to welcome this bird with open arms if it chooses to make its home nearby.

The Tawny Owl is a widespread species in France and is not considered threatened.

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I'm Jennifer. My hands are often covered in soil, and my heart is full of passion for nature. Through my writings, I share my personal gardening journeys, tips, and the joy of cultivating both plants and a community of fellow garden lovers. Every plant I grow adds a story to my life, and I love sharing those tales with my readers.