Silent Hunters

(c) Russell Savory

As darkness descends on the landscape, deadly hunters are taking to the skies, slipping from their roosts and wheeling silently above hedgerows and through woodland – the owls are on the wing.

Owls have adapted to become fearsome night time hunters. An owl’s best weapon is its incredible hearing. Their flat faces and specialised feathers focus sound towards their asymmetrical ears, allowing them to accurately pinpoint their prey under leaves, plants and snow from even the slightest sound. 

Owls are famously able to look ‘backwards’ by turning their head through 270 degrees. Although they have binocular vision their forward-facing eyes cannot move in their sockets, meaning they have to turn their heads instead. 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.

Unlike most other birds, owls make virtually no noise when they fly. They have special feathers that break the air flow over their wings to reduce the sound and their soft, velvety down further muffles any noise.

Barn Owl

(c) Russell Savory

Owls have long had their place in folklore but depending on where you’re from you might have a very different opinion of them.  

In the UK, owls – in particular the barn owl with its ghost-like appearance – had a sinister reputation for being a bird of darkness, associated with death and misfortune. Poets such as William Wordsworth likened the owl to a “bird of doom” and people believed that the eerie screech of an owl meant imminent death or evil. 

In contrast, if you lived in ancient Greece you would have worshipped owls instead of condemning them. In Greek mythology, the little owl was the goddess of wisdom Athene’s favourite animal, inhabiting the Acropolis and protecting Greek armies in times of war. It was believed that owls possessed an ‘inner light’ which gave them night vision.

Little Owl against the sunset

Little owl © Russell Savory

The UK is home to six different types of owl, five of which can be found in our area where they inhabit farmland, woodlands, parks, and grasslands. Most of our owls are nocturnal or crepuscular – active both at dawn and dusk – and usually shy away from human encounters making them hard to spot. 

Long-eared owl

Long-eared owl © Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Long-eared owl
An elusive inhabitant of coniferous woodland and undisturbed farmland, long-eared owls are smaller than a woodpigeon. They are mottled brown with big, orange-red eyes and long wings spanning up to one metre! Their “ears” are not actually ears but feathery tufts which are risen in alarm. Long-eared owls are incredibly secretive, their cry - a soft, elongated ‘hooo’ - being the only sign to give away their presence in a dark landscape. They hunt out their prey by sweeping clearings and fields in a zig-zag flying pattern.
Sadly, long-eared owls no longer breed in our area, but small numbers do occur in the winter months, usually roosting colonially in dense bushes.  

Short-eared owl

Short-eared owl © Russell Savory

Short-eared owl
Just like their long-eared cousins, 'shorties' are easier to find in autumn and winter when they arrive from Scandinavia, Russia or Iceland. With intricately mottled and streaked plumage, large eyes and broad wings, they can often be seen during daylight hours, with marshes, unimproved grassland and mixed farmland their favourite haunts. Easily identified by their rather floppy flight, often likened to being ‘bat-like’, they hunt by sweeping a couple of feet above open fields and grasslands, swooping onto their prey, feet-first. Their ‘ears’ – actually feather tufts like those of long-eared owls – are often too short to be actually visible unless risen when the bird is alarmed.

Tawny owl

Tawny owl © Margaret Holland

Tawny owl
The tawny owl’s intricate feather pattern – mottled reddish-brown with a paler underside – is the perfect camouflage in woodland. Thus, finding a tawny owl by day can be quite the task. The tell-tale behaviour of smaller birds – repeated alarm-calling and mobbing – can give away an owl otherwise invisible in thick foliage near the trunk of a favoured tree. Their short wings show their perfect adaption to woodlands, giving them great manoeuvrability in tight spaces. Extremely territorial, they will fiercely defend their young forcing bird ringers to protect themselves with helmets and visors when ringing baby tawnies. 

Barn owl

Barn owl © Danny Green/2020VISION

Barn Owl
Essentially snow-white but for subtly marked, buffy-brown upperparts, the barn owl is probably our most well-known owl. It has been dubbed the ghost of the British countryside with historical monikers such as ‘Ghost Owl’ or ‘Demon Owl’ – not so surprising when you hear their piercing shrieks and hissing calls. With its distinctive heart-shaped face, big black eyes, strikingly pale plumage and ghostly silent flight, barn owls are easy to identify and a treat to see. When they have found the right partner barn owls mate for life.

Little owl

Little Owl © Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Little owl
With their characteristically stern expression and rather comical size – standing barely taller than a starling at under 25cm – the little owl may be our smallest member of the family. What they lack in stature is more than compensated for in character. Introduced to the UK from mainland Europe in the 19th century, the little owl has made its home here without posing a conservation risk to ecosystems. Little owls can frequently be seen in daylight, perched on a fence post, hedgerow or rock, quietly scanning the ground for prey. When it spots a small mammal, reptiles or invertebrate, it swoops down and catches its unsuspecting victim with its claws or beak.

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