Owls are members of the ‘strigiformes’ family and, despite folklore, are not that wise! Especially compared with crows, for example. A group of owls is called a ‘parliament’. The fact that owls are not as wise as folklore would have us believe seems to be currently reflected at Westminster!
Owls may not be wise, but they are extraordinary predators with massive talons and fabulous hearing. Their broad wings allow them to float slowly over their hunting grounds listening for the faint rustles of small mammals – their favourite food. Their feathers have soft trailing edges which reduces air turbulence and allows them to fly in almost total silence. Evolution has provided them with superpowers!
“The nemesis of the vole!”
In my painting ‘British owls’ I have illustrated all five species of owl resident in the British Isles:
The barn owl (Tyto alba) is one of the most instantly recognisable of birds – its pretty heart-shaped face and bright white and grey/yellow plumage and deep dark eyes. It has a notably wide global distribution occuring naturally on all continents except Antarctica. They mostly eat small rodents. A great reason never to use rat poison! A night hunter you can sometimes see them out at dawn or dusk flying slowly over scrubby fields where their prey live.
The tawny owl (Strix aluco) is the owl who goes “k-wik – wooo!” Mrs Tawny says ‘k-wik’ and Mr Tawny answers back with ‘wooo!’ It’s a stocky owl with brown plumage about the size of a wood pigeon. They eat small mammals and birds, but also take frogs, fish, insects and worms. You’ll rarely see a tawny in the day except perhaps asleep high up in a tree.
The little owl (Athene noctua) is the smallest of British owls. It was introduced to the UK in the 19th century, but no one seems to mind, and it’s not persecuted like the grey squirrel, for example. Introduced species are here to stay and we must get used to the ‘New Wild’. They take small mammals and birds, insects and worms and will pursue their prey on the ground. You might spot one perching openly in the day time. They pair for life.
The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) has amazing yellow eyes! You’ll see them hunting in the day. There’s a place near to where I live where they come every winter and it’s a very special treat to go to see them – usually about four of them – quartering over the grassy open fields looking for small mammals. Their little ear tufts are not always visible, but they’ll sometimes erect them as a form of communication with other owls.
The long-eared owl (Asio otus) is the only British owl I have never seen wild – but I’d love to! Those tufts are not actually ears, but feathers – presumably to make them look more like a fierce mammal! I always used to imagine them as being huge, but actually they’re about the same size as a wood pigeon.