Tawny owl guide: how to identify, diet and where to see

The distinctive tawny owl is a majestic woodland bird to spot. In our expert guide learn more about the tawny owl, including how to identify, their diet and where to see in the UK.

© John Harding/BTO

Learn more about the tawny owl, including how to identify, their distinctive call and where to see in the UK in our expert guide.

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.

What does a tawny owl hoot communicate?

It is well known that male tawnies hoot to advertise that they have occupied a territory. However, the structure of the hoot differs between individuals, and male tawnies have been found to react more strongly to the calls of strangers than those of known neighbours. This shows that the owls can identify other individuals from their call.

But calls don’t just reveal identity or the holding of a territory. Indeed, evidence suggests that the owl’s vocalisations can impart all sorts of additional information to rivals or prospective mates about the quality of the bird itself.

For example, the pitch of the call is related to the owl’s size, and the final vibrato is longer in larger males than in smaller ones. Males carrying a larger number of blood parasites have calls with a reduced number of frequencies, and a study has revealed that the calls of successful males contain longer notes than those of their less-successful peers.

Why don’t tawny owls call every night?

The familiar ‘hooo hu huhuhuhooo’ of the male tawny owl, which is often answered by the female’s ‘keewik’, is typically heard from late summer to February.

Tawny calling behaviour varies throughout the year, but is most pronounced in autumn, when owls are re-establishing their territories and newly independent youngsters are settling into their patches. The more neighbours an owl has, the more frequently it calls, particularly if those neighbours are new. This demonstrates that the owls can recognise other birds on the basis of their call structure.

Tawny calling is also influenced by other factors such as temperature and weather conditions. Some years ago, I conducted research into the behaviour using data collected by a network of 3,500 citizen scientists across the UK. I discovered that the birds were more likely to call on warmer evenings and when a greater proportion of the moon was visible (moon phase has been linked to activity in other nocturnal birds). The tawnies were less vocal on cloudy nights, and there were also strong seasonal patterns.

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