Friday, July 1, 2022
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Our neighbours, the owls

Notes from the Sticks: Our neighbours, the owls

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AN occasional sight in my childhood (in the suburbs of Manchester and London) was that of an owl in a tree being mobbed by furious small birds. It is yet another sign of how the small bird population has declined over my lifetime that I never see mobbing now – and that is with owls living within yards.

A previous resident of our house kindly put an owl box in a tree across the stream. My next-door neighbour thinks it was about 40 years ago, so it has done well. This is the tree (I took the picture yesterday – I am surprised the cows are still out as I understood they are usually under cover in the winter, partly because the grass is not very nutritious at this time of year and partly because they churn up the muddy ground)

and if you look carefully you can see the square hole of the ivy-covered box which is attached at the right of the trunk.

It is home to a pair of tawny owls (Strix aluco) which we regularly hear at night. These are the most common owls in the UK, and are found from Spain to Siberia.

One of their attributes is the ability to turn their heads more than 180 degrees, which is weird, as in this video.

They hunt mainly at night, but apparently it is a myth that they have great nocturnal vision – it is not much better than ours; they use their exceptional hearing to locate prey. We sometimes see them out during the day in the summer when they have young to feed. They will sit motionless on a branch for hours until they spot a rodent or a worm, then they drop on it like a stone. Apparently they will take prey as large as a young rabbit or a duck.

They also raid small birds’ nests, and here is a rather pathetic video of such an attack on a wagtail family.

Prey is swallowed whole, and the indigestible parts are compressed into pellets of bones and fur which are regurgitated. I couldn’t find a film of a tawny owl doing this, but here are a couple of other species.

They pair for life (typically four or five years in the wild, though 27 has been recorded in captivity) and have two or three young. Like other birds of prey, the chicks hatch over several days and if times are hard the biggest chick will eat the smallest. When they are getting ready to leave the nest they start spending time on neighbouring branches, as in this picture.

This activity is called ‘branching’, and we were lucky enough to see an owlet taking the air one day a few summers ago.

The parents are extremely protective, as the renowned bird photographer Eric Hosking found when he was trying to photograph one near its nest in 1937. It attacked him with its talons and he lost an eye.

However the attitude of the parents changes at the end of the summer when the youngsters have to find a territory of their own. If they fail to do so, they usually starve to death. It is a terribly tough life being a bird.

Finally, a good video of tawny owls calling (though the video caption calls it singing).

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A brief visit to London during the week made me realise afresh how glad I am not to live there any more. There are so many people, and not one looks friendly. If I am on foot around the village where I live, everyone says hello and often more. The few who don’t speak are considered a bit odd. Obviously you couldn’t greet everyone you see in London or it would take all day to get from A to B, but eyes never meet. There is a special London distant gaze. I was however pleased to note that mask-wearing on the Tube is down to less than 50 per cent. Oddly, most of the muzzled ones are young, teens and twenties. Are they worried about getting Covid, which is practically no risk to them, or are they concerned for everyone else lest they should pass it on (I really doubt that), or do they just like the idea of conformity?

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We had the first frost of the year this week, and it was a sharp one. On Friday night the edge of Storm Arwen passed through with strong winds which blew away one of our garden chairs (it has vanished down our stream and is probably out at sea now) and yesterday morning Pendle Hill was lightly snow-covered for the first time since last winter. I took this picture from the car park of the restaurant across the road from our house. 

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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