Dear Readers, there is something magical about owls, and they are often nearer to us than we think. The two chicks above were photographed in Kensington Gardens, of all places, and there are Little Owls there too (which I hope to photograph at some point this month). I had a very excited reader who lives close to the North Circular Road contact me a few years ago with a recording, and she asked if I thought she was hearing owls, because she couldn’t believe her ears. She was! And there are tawny owls in both of our local cemeteries (St Pancras and Islington and East Finchley) and probably in Coldfall Wood too.
The prime time for owl ‘conversations’ is in the spring, but there is something particularly spine-chilling about hearing them at this time of year, as the nights draw in and Halloween approaches. Of course, for the owls themselves the calls are many things, but mostly, as Kiera Chapman points out in ‘Nature’s Calendar‘, they are a way of helping the male and female owls to establish their territories in preparation for the spring breeding season. The ‘tu-whit, tu-whoo’ call is the two owls duetting, and typically it’s thought that the ‘tu-whit’ is the female’s soliciting call, the ‘tu-whoo’ part the male answering. However, Chapman reveals that male owls can also make the ‘tu-whit’ call (though at a lower pitch than the female does), and both sexes can answer. Which just goes to show that just when I think I’ve gotten something about the natural world nailed down, it turns out to be more complicated, which is a source of some pleasure.
Let’s have a listen to some tawny owl calls.
Here is a single owl making the ‘soliciting call’ (recorded by Huw Lloyd at Bagmere Nature Reserve in Cheshire). Chapman points out that this call actually sounds much more like ‘Ku-Wick’ than ‘Tu-whit’ and she’s definitely right.
And here’s an ‘answering’ call, recorded in Queen’s Wood in Highgate by David Darrell-Lambert
And here, also by David Darrell-Lambert in Queen’s Wood, you can hear the call and the answer.
Here is another ‘soliciting call’, and you can hear how different it is from the owl in the first recording above. Owls can tell a lot from one another’s calls, not just the sex of the caller but their size, weight, health and level of aggression. These are all important factors in choosing a mate – will they be able to defend and hold a territory? Are they good hunters? Chapman points out that the males with the highest levels of testosterone call more frequently and for longer, and this is often related to the size and quality of their territories. This recording was made by Paul Driver, in Northaw in Hertfordshire.
The combination of the two owl ‘voices’ is a signal to other owls that the partnership is working, and that they are cooperating in defending their territories. It’s hard work providing for owlets, and so this teamwork is essential. Although the cry of the owl has been seen as a harbinger of doom since at least Shakespeare’s time, and probably long before, for me it signals that something in the ecosystem is working – if it can support two tawny owls, then the rest of the food chain is likely to also be relatively healthy.
So, finally, here’s a rather impressive selection of calls, with at least one duet and some other males trying to get in the action. The woods at night are an interesting soundscape, for sure, but note that at this time of year you’re most likely to hear the owls just after sunset, rather than at the dead of night. It’s definitely worth going for a dusk walk, just to see what you can hear and see.
These calls were recorded by Ilkka Heiskanen in Finland.