The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
The tawny owl is a stocky, medium sized owl with a large round head and large forward facing dark coloured eyes. Whilst the adult female is larger than the adult male both sexes are similar with regards to their plumage. There is however an anomaly with the tawny owl in that its plumage is polymorphic, meaning that the bird can appear in one of two dominant colour morphs, either grey or brown.
Tawny owls have either brown or grey mottled upperparts with dark streaks and paler underparts with very dark thin vertical streaks with occasional cross barring. Where the bird is predominantly brown then the rest of the plumage has a brown hue and where the morph is of a grey colour then the remaining base colour is grey.
Whatever the colour morph, in ornithological circles it is described as being cryptic. This means that the plumage colour and patternation is such as to camouflage the individual bird to such an extent so as to make it almost invisible when in its natural environment.
Close up of a Tawny Owl face
The facial disc is pale, almost off white (sometimes tinged either buff or light grey) with highlighted darker concentric circles and the crown of the head has a very dark central band running from the top of the bill to the back of the head. The remainder of the head mirrors the colouration of the bird’s upper parts.
The wings are rounded with the upperwing coverts tipped white. The outer primary flight feathers are fringed and this, coupled with the soft upper surface of the remainder of the wing, allows the bird to be almost silent in flight. Underwing area is pale with base colour barring and the legs are feathered.
Talons are grey or blackish and the bill is hooked and a pale olive yellow. The forward facing eyes appear almost black and cannot be moved within their sockets which is the reason that the tawny owl is able to turn its head through a 270° arc and is able to see behind it.
Tawny owl chicks are altricial and covered in a soft white down.
Tawny Owl Owlets
The seven subspecies of tawny owl are differentiated from the nominate predominantly by minor variations in size and plumage and on the geographical area of their habitats which range from the Indian sub-continent to Western Europe and Britain, the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf and the Urals to Tajikistan. This article concentrates mainly on the nominate, Strix aluco.
With a body length of between 37 – 39 cm (14.5 – 15.5 in) the adult tawny owl is shorter in length than the Common Wood Pigeon. For an owl of its size its wing span is relatively short at 94 – 104 cm (37 – 41 in) which allows for quick and easy flight through woodland areas, its preferred habitat.
Tawny Owl in flight
The adult male has an average weight of around 440 g or 15.5 oz which equates roughly to just under half the weight of a standard bag of shop bought sugar. The adult female is heavier than its mate averaging 553 g or 19.5 oz.
The tawny owl is classified as belonging to the family known as Strigadae which consists of 225 species of owls. The genus of the tawny owl, which is best defined as being the name of a specimen between family and species, is Strix of which there are 19 individual species.
The word strix is derived from the ancient Greek word meaning owl. The scientific name for the tawny owl is Strix aluco with the word aluco denoting the owl’s species.
This latter word comes from the Italian ‘alocho’ meaning tawny owl which originated from the Latin word ‘uluccus’ meaning screech owl.
Tawny Owl perched on a rock
Tawny owls can be incredibly aggressive, particularly during the breeding season when they have young in their nest. They will often attack unsuspecting animals and even humans whom they may consider a threat, by swopping down from above and using their sharp talons as extremely effective weapons.
Scientists engaged in the ringing of tawny owl chicks have been known to wear crash helmets and visors as protection against attack. Tawny owls are also very territorial and will defend their territory against outsiders and other ’trespassing’ birds.
Life expectancy for the tawny owl is generally accepted as being 5 years. Predation will often result in high chick mortality rates and juveniles who leave the nest area to establish their own territories can often starve to death if no vacant territories can be found.
There have been instances where tawny owls have survived much longer than the accepted average with a ringed individual achieving 18 years and a specimen in captivity living over 25 years.
Tawny Owl flying
Within the United Kingdom Conservation Status criteria, tawny owls are classified as Amber, whereas under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) they are listed as being of Least Concern. In other words they are not considered, at this time, as being endangered.
Tawny owls are superb night hunters and will glide silently over their territory hunting for prey or stand motionless on a favourite perch watching and more importantly listening for the telltale movement of their next meal.
They are almost totally carnivorous choosing a diet of small birds and mammals, reptiles and amphibians, insects, snails, beetles and worms.
Within the United Kingdom, where they are arguably the most common owl, their diet consists in the main of what is available to them within their territory during a particular season, predominantly voles, mice and shrews, as opposed to what their individual preference may be.
For more information on the feeding habits of Tawny Owls, check out this guide.
Tawny Owl with captured mouse in beak
Once mature and of breeding age, from approximately twelve months old, tawny owls begin looking for a mate and once found they generally pair for life and are therefore classed as monogamous.
Tawny owls often nest in abandoned nests of other large bird species or tree cavities within open mixed forests or broadleaf woodlands. Nesting boxes and nooks in buildings or chimneys are also utilised and within certain geographical areas (e.g. Scotland) they will even nest upon the ground.
Tawny Owl owlet in nest in a tree
The tawny owl will normally lay one brood annually between the months of February to July. The preferred laying period is dependent upon geographical location and climate. Eggs are laid at intervals of a couple of days which ensures that they hatch asynchronously meaning there are intervals between each egg hatching. Although observations have recorded the number of eggs laid in each clutch ranging from between 2 to 9, the number most commonly produced varies from 3 to 5.
The female parent alone incubates the eggs for up to 30 days during which time she is fed by the male. Upon hatching chicks are altricial meaning they are underdeveloped and reliant upon their parents for food and protection.
Fledging occurs 35 to 39 days later although chicks will often leave the nest earlier than this and roost on nearby branches where they will continue to be fed by their parents. Juvenile owls are generally fully independent by the time they attain three months of age. There is often an extremely high mortality rate during the tawny owl’s first twelve months of life.
Tawny Owl eggs
Tawny owl eggs are a plain gloss white in colour and much smaller than even the smallest chicken egg, averaging some 48 mm x 39 mm in size (1.9 in x 1.5 in) and weighing in at around 39 g or 1.4 oz.
The vocalisations of male and female tawny owls differ with the female issuing a medium to high pitched almost screech like, ‘kew – wick, kew – wick’ sound whereas the male sings with a low pitched, haunting whistle or hoot, frequently repeated as in ‘hooo – hooo – hooo’.
This has often been interpreted as a ‘ta-wit ta-woo’ sound where in fact the female’s ‘kew – wick’ sound is made first (‘ta-wit’) followed by the male’s response of ‘hooo’ (erroneously described as being ‘ta-woo’).
This archetypal owl noise is often used in films to create a spooky atmosphere at night and it has come to epitomise the genre even though the tawny owl may not be a resident in many of the portrayed locations.
Tawny Owl landing on a tree branch
Tawny owls are, in the main, lowland birds who prefer open woodland and forest habitats of mainly broadleaf (deciduous) trees or mixed copses, although they will occasionally choose coniferous woods when left with no alternative. Whilst they will avoid treeless plains and landscapes they will populate urban parks, gardens, scrubland and farmland provided there are trees (particularly mature tress) within the immediate area.
Tawny owls are particularly territorial in nature and will usually defend an area of between 30 to 50 acres in size which they consider to be theirs alone. To understand the size of an owl’s territory we could compare it to that of a normal size soccer pitch (to include the immediate touchline area) which is calculated as being 2 acres. Thus, a pair of adult tawny owls will occupy a territory the size of between 15 to 25 soccer pitches which they will rarely, if ever leave.
Tawny Owl perched during the winter
Certainly within Europe the tawny owl is a common resident although not always easy to spot. Not only does their plumage offer excellent camouflage within their usual surroundings, they are also night hunters and during the day seldom move from their nest or roosting spot and are in fact exceptionally sedentary, using the minimal amount of physical activity.
Remember that tawny owls can be very aggressive, particularly in the breeding season and will often attack unsuspecting creatures, including humans, that they consider may be a danger to themselves or their offspring, so take care and avoid the immediate vicinity of nests.
Tawny Owl perched on a tree
Within the United Kingdom the tawny owl is the most common species of owl, although it is not found in Ireland. Careful observation around typical tawny owl habitats, particularly during dusk or dawn, can often result in a rewarding glimpse of a hunting tawny, especially when combined with prior knowledge obtained from hearing the unmistakable hooting sounds of an adult male.
Whilst walking through woods a telling sign of the presence of a tawny owl can also be the discovery of pellets at the base of a tree or underneath a branch. Many birds expel pellets by regurgitation, which are made up of undigestible feathers, fur, bones and other matter they may have consumed during a previous meal. Owl pellets are predominantly grey in colour and can often be found immediately below a nest or favourite perch.
Owl sanctuaries are also not uncommon within the western world, often caring for sick or injured birds and offer the chance to observe these beautiful creatures at close hand.
Tawny owls do not migrate. They are monogamous and remain within their own territory throughout their lives. Juvenile tawny owls are chased away from the parental territory during their first autumn and must find their own territory and mate which is seldom any great distance from the area in which they originated. The high death rate of first year juveniles is often attributed to starvation following their parental expulsion and inability to find food and/or territory.
Brown Owl, Eurasian Tawny Owl
37cm to 39cm
94cm to 104cm
330g to 590g
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.