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Tawny Owls in London

July 6, 2014

This article was originally published in the Lost in London book, available here

Tawny Owlets in Abney Park Cemetery, central London

Tawny Owlets in Abney Park Cemetery, central London

Owls are one of the most magical and enigmatic families in Britain’s avifauna, a reputation earned not least through their perceived shyness and often secretive habits. Almost all of our native owl species are, to varying degrees, particularly sensitive to disturbance, are associated almost exclusively with more rural habitats, and tend to shun the urban environment that the majority of Londoners call home.

Almost all, that is. The one exception is the Tawny Owl, a widespread, well-known, intricately-plumaged and beautiful native species, responsible for centuries of folklore and the mournful, evocative hooting so essential to horror films and easily mimicked with cupped hands and practice.

Tawny Owls are remarkably tolerant of human disturbance, and have adapted admirably to often isolated pockets of suitable habitat throughout the capital, including those deep within its urban heart; thus,Tawnies are very much London’s owl. Mixed woodland is where Tawny Owls traditionally prosper, but in the city they’re just as likely to set up territories in parks, cemeteries, railway sidings and even rows of back gardens.

Their diet usually consists of small mammals, although they’ll also take small birds, worms, beetles and other prey, and studies have shown that they can adapt easily according to availability; hence, an urban owls supper is as likely to be as feathered as it is furred. The homestead, meanwhile, is usually a cavity in a tree, be it a natural hole or hollow created by a broken or damaged limb. Where choices are limited, Tawnies will also take to specially-made nest boxes, squirrel dreys, and even holes in buildings.

By day, they rely on a combination of the right choice of roosting site and their cryptic plumage as camouflage to evade the attentions of other birds and mammals (including Homo sapiens). Tawny Owls usually choose branches close to and roughly at a right angle with the main trunk of a tree, and favour branches with cover provided by thick foliage, ideally tangles of ivy or other creepers.


Most of the time, it works, and trying to find one, even if you know they’re close by, can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. There are, however, a few hints which can greatly narrow the search.

The two most sure-fire ways of connecting with Tawnies in London involve first connecting with locals, of both human and avian persuasions. Human, as in those in the know, be they birders, park staff and user groups or random residents with a passion for ‘their’ local owls. Accumulated knowledge of a resident pair or family of Tawny Owls in a traditional location is invaluable, and staking out known nest holes and favoured roosting spots is much more reliable than endless ‘blind’ searching.

The London Natural History Society and local bird clubs are good places to start, and tagging along with the various free guided walks in the capital can be a great way of enjoying the city’s owls. Tawnies can be found throughout both inner and outer London, from the urban sanctuaries of Kensington Gardens and Abney Park Cemetery to the leafy suburbs of Richmond and Enfield, but local knowledge goes a long way.

Avian, as in other birds, which can often lead you straight to a roosting owl, even if it’s initially invisible. A whole range of familiar garden and woodland species, from Blue Tits and Robins to Magpies and Jays, engage in a collective harrying of an owl discovered dozing peacefully in the daytime, known appropriately enough as mobbing; a relentless, panicked disturbance aimed at a specific area of foliage on closer inspection will often reveal an owl, usually apparently unfazed by such neurotic attentions.

Tawny Owls conduct almost all their business after dark, with activities often beginning around dusk and continuing in fits and starts throughout the night. Occasionally, however, you may come across adults being peculiarly active, noisy and even apparently tame during the day; this will usually mean you’re close to the nest or recently fledged chicks, which can be a blessing and a curse, depending on your luck – they’re notoriously defensive parents, and a respectful retreat is strongly advised….

All words & pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2014




























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