British owl species: how to identify, diet and where to see
British owl species: how to identify, diet and where to see
Spotting an owl in flight or hearing the distinctive hoot of a tawny owl is an exciting wildlife encounter. Learn about the UK's owl species, including how to identify, where to see and what makes them so good at hunting at night.
Silently swooping throughout the land as night draws in, Britain’s owls are elusive, beautiful birds which can be seen in both rural and urban landscapes. Owls are one of Britain’s most spectacular wildlife species to spot.
Our guide to the UK’s native owl species, including how to identify, diet and habitat and best places to see.
Which owl species are native to the UK?
There are five resident owl species found in Britain, four of which are native (barn, tawny, long-eared and short-eared owl) and one (the little owl) was introduced in the 1800’s. The snowy owl is a rare visitor from further north that has bred here on occasion and the small numbers of eagle owls breeding here are thought to derive from aviary escapes and deliberate releases.
Which is the most common owl found in the UK?
The tawny owl is the most common British owl species – listed below are the most common owl species found in the UK.
The UK’s owl species share a number of adaptations that aid them in their nocturnal way of life. They all have large, forward-facing eyes, which are so vast that the owl skull is highly modified to accommodate them and give owls their characteristic flat-faced, round-headed appearance.
A tawny owl, Strix aluco, landed on a fence post at night. It is feeding on a mouse and in an unusual pose with one wing straight up in the air to gain balance/Credit: Getty
The owl’s sizeable eyes also provide greater visual sensitivity, enabling it to make the most of what little light is available at night. Interestingly, while the visual sensitivity of owls is advanced compared to most diurnal birds, it is not that much better than humans.
Numbers have declined in recent years, but barn owls, are one of Britain’s most recognisable owl species.
Where to see barn owls
Most commonly found in farmland and grassland, once a barn owl has found a suitable hunting spot, they will return to this location every year. Barn owls tend to hunt at dawn and dusk and have a general life span of 10 years in the wild.
To encourage them closer to your home, install a super-safe owl box to your garden or leave a patch of grass to grow, creating a habitat for voles.
What do barn owls eat?
With a diet of small rodents such as wood mice, field voles and common shrews, they silently swoop down in tussocky terrain, (also known as grassland) to catch their prey. Barn owls are one of the only birds to have the ability to fly silently and this enables them to hear the tiny, quiet movements of their prey.
What is the wingspan of a barn owl?
Barn owls have wings with a large surface area that can reach lengths of 80-95cm. This allows barn owls to glide for much longer than other birds, meaning they don’t have to flap as much, decreasing noise levels. Subsequently, barn owls are medium-sized predators, reaching about 36cm in body length.
Tawny owls are the most widespread British owl species/Credit: Getty
Tawny owls have a wingspan of approximately one meter and weigh around 500g. Just like barn owls, tawny owls will live in the same location for the majority of their life, and sometimes even lay their eggs in abandoned crow’s nests or squirrel dreys. When searching for tawny owls, look out for owl pellets. These are indigestible materials wrapped in fur and coughed back up by the owl, to prevent damage to the bird’s inner organs.
Where to see tawny owls
Tawny owls can be found in mainland Britain and the Isle of Man. The most widespread owl species found in the UK, tawny owls prefer wooded habitats, including some wooded suburbs. This sedentary and territorial species uses the knowledge of its woodland territory to hunt small mammals from favoured perches.
What do tawny owls eat?
They have sustained a wide population throughout the land due to their versatile diet of small mammals, amphibians, bats and even earth worms.
Low flying tawny owl/Credit: Getty
How do tawny owls communicate?
Tawny owls have a circular face, which allows sound waves to be re-directed to their ears, located underneath their feathers. Tawny owl ears, like many other species of owl, are slightly out of alignment, which allows its exceptional directional hearing.
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.
Tawny Owl (Strix Aluco) looking up behind Bokeh forests in Cornwall, UK/Credit: Getty
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.
Wild short-eared owl sitting on a fence post/Credit: Getty
Where to see short-eared owls
The majority of Britain’s short-eared owls breed in Northern England and Scotland and can most likely be seen in winter, where they inhabit wetlands and coastal habitats.
Often active during the day, the short-eared owl is restricted as a breeding species to upland moorland and, occasionally, coastal grazing marsh.
What do short-eared owls eat?
These owls are known to hunt during the day, so spotting a short-eared owl whilst it preys on it’s lunch is not unusual. These owls have a body length or around 30-40 cm and a wingspan of 90-105cm.
With mottled brown bodies they are able to camouflage into the coastal brush and wetland reeds, on small mammals such as mice, rates and voles. It’s noticeable short ear tufts give this owl its name along with its distinctive reddish yellow coloured eyes.
When do they migrate?
A nomadic species its movement, the bird moves between Britain and overseas in response to vole numbers. Throughout the winter some shot-eared owls migrate to Scandinavia, Iceland and Russia, so look out for the occasional spectacle of these owls flying in off the ocean.
Long-eared owls are possibly Britain’s most mysterious owl, which is most commonly spotted when migrating around the coast or while in it’s communal winter roosts of more than 20 birds.
How do long-eared owls hunt?
This nocturnal and shy species of owl has tufts on it’s head, which are made up of around 6-8 feathers. These tufts don’t actually have anything to do with the owl’s ears, which are located under its feathers on it’s facial disk. It is suggested however, that these tufts help to break up the owls silhouette, confusing predators.
Just like tawny owls, long-eared owls lay their eggs in discarded nests as well as hollows in tree trunks. In order to hunt down it’s prey, these owls fly in a zig-zag pattern, scanning the ground in the most effective manner.
Long Eared Owl bird with its wings outspread in flight and commonly known as the lesser horned owl or cat owl/Credit: Getty
What are owl ear-tufts for?
Roughly a third of owl species worldwide have ear tufts or ‘horns’. These appendages are mainly used for display and visual communication, but are also thought to play a role in camouflage, breaking up the bird’s outline against its background.
Each tuft is comprised of one or more feathers (those of the long-eared owl have 6–8). These are usually flattened against the head and thus difficult to see, but are swiftly raised when an individual is agitated by a potential intruder and needs to carry out its threat display.
Long Eared Owl (Asio otus) will often raise its ears at intruders/Credit: Getty
Owls will sometimes raise their ear tufts at human observers, and long-eared owls are also known to raise theirs during the display-flight used to advertise ownership of a breeding territory.
Ear tufts play no role in hearing – an owl’s ears are located lower down on its head, on the margin of the facial disk. In fact, there are no obvious external signs of their presence.
With striking yellow eyes and a mottled cream and brown coat, the little owl is Britains non-native species of owl, which hunts both in the day and at night.
What do little owls eat?
Unlike other owls, the little owl has enough cone and rod cells within its retina to be able to see in colour during the day, as well as at night. Allowing this bird to have a diet of invertebrates, mostly moths, beetles, earwigs and earthworms. This little owl became too obese to fly after finding a particularly good hunting ground.
How do little owls deter predators?
The broad markings on the back of the little owls head acts as armour, deterring predators such as sparrow hawks and even other, larger owls.
Where to see little owls
Mainly inhabiting farmland, rural villages and parkland, little owls are most commonly spotted perched on fence posts, where they wait for their prey. Did you know little owls have over 20 different vocalisations of their unique call?
History and folklore of owls in the UK
The nocturnal habit shared by most owls is the thing that sets them apart. Active at a time when our sense of sight is restricted, the owls share the night with our fears and it is all too easy to see why they have been associated with witchcraft and evil deeds.