8 amazing tawny owl facts

Discover fascinating facts about this charismatic owl. 

© John Harding/BTO

Do tawny owls live everywhere in the UK?

You won’t find tawny owls in Ireland, nor on many UK islands including the Northern Isles, Outer Hebrides and the Isles of Scilly. However they have recently colonised the Isle of Man (in 2000) so their dislike for flying over water may be a myth. Other gaps in their range in the UK are usually upland areas with no trees as they are typically a woodland bird.


Why are tawny owls noisier in the autumn?

Tawny owls are more vocal during autumn because young birds have to disperse from their parents’ territories and compete for new ones. Part of this process involves punctuating the countryside with various wails and screeches. The young birds will not move very far; the average distance is just over two miles. Sadly, two thirds are likely to die within their first year.

Tawny owl perching on branch during the day
Tawny owl perching in an oak tree. © Mike Pearce/Getty

Do tawny owls really say ‘twit twoo’?

Despite what you might think, tawny owls have never had a call of ‘twit twoo’. This might be a combination of a contact call (‘ke-wick’) made by a female with a male answering (‘hoo-hoo-ooo’). It’s thought that it is a misrepresentation derived from Shakespeare trying to make the overlapping calls fit into a verse in Love’s Labour’s Lost.


How good is a tawny owl’s memory?

Tawny owls have been shown to have excellent spatial memories when compared to most other birds that have been tested. Combine this with their strong territorial and sedentary nature and you can see how they can develop and retain the ‘knowledge’ of where to find prey and roosting areas in their territory.


What do tawny owls eat?

Tawny owls have a varied diet which has allowed them to become widespread. They will feed on small mammals, birds, amphibians and bats. They will also hunt on foot to feed on earthworms.

The tawny owl’s round face allows it to pinpoint its prey precisely. © John Harding/BTO

How do tawny owls have such good hearing?

The reason the tawny owl has such a round face is that its facial disk allows the owl to direct sound waves to its ears. Its ears are hidden behind the feathers on either side of its head, and are slightly out of alignment with each other which gives the owl its exceptional directional hearing and allows it to pinpoint prey so precisely.


Why do tawny owls cough up pellets?

As much of their prey consists of bones, owls produce pellets of indigestible material and cough them back up. The hard bits are wrapped in fur and other indigestible material to prevent damage to the owl’s insides.

A tawny owl (Strix aluco) in the late evening sunshine, perched on a branch that's surrounded by English bluebells.
Tawny owl in a bluebell wood. © Jackie Bale/Getty

Are tawny owls dangerous?

Tawny owls, females especially, will ferociously defend their nests and young against intruders. Famously, one of our greatest wildlife photographers lost an eye to a tawny owl when approaching a nest. It is suggested that they are more aggressive when nesting in areas close to human habitation, but are more docile in remote areas.

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org


Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.