Sussex Wildlife Trust: Not what they seem

October 1st, 2020
Once upon a time, we were terrified of Tawny Owls. They were a portent of evil in fairy tales, folklore and just about every scary story, film or poem that needed a creepy cliché. But in today’s crowded marketplace of international terrorism, climate change and saturated fats the owl’s powers to scare us are fading. Recently, it appears this spokesman of the supernatural has got itself a new publicist. Its modern image is one of a cuddly pin-up, more Harry Potter than Hammer Horror.

But stand in the woods on a moonlit night and listen for an unseen owl’s ethereal call. It’s an ancient, unnerving sound that still speaks to something buried deep within us and ignites a primeval fear.

The Tawny Owl is the largest and commonest of our island’s five owl species, typically nesting in holes in old trees in our remaining woodlands. But what is it about this bird that has given us the willies throughout history?

Let’s start with those huge, lifeless black eyes that seem to stare into your very soul. An owl’s eyes are not spherical but tubular like two telescopes and give amazing vision at low light levels.

However, the eye’s stretched shape and position on the owl’s face presents a narrow field of vision. To compensate, a Tawny Owl has special bones and blood vessels in its neck so it can perform that freaky, Exorcist-like head twist. This gives the bird the ability to scan all around without having to move their bodies and arouse detection by prey.

And in the world of a nocturnal hunter, silence and stealth are everything. Special serrated feathers slice the air, allowing it to fly as silently as a phantom and aerially ambush its victims. Incredible hearing achieved by asymmetrical ears allows them to accurately pinpoint the rustle of a nervous vole below. They can hear fear.

And then there’s that disembodied voice arising from the darkness. The male’s far-carrying baritone ‘hooo-huhuhuhooo’ and the female’s squawky ‘kerr-wik’ response are like a mis-matched duet between Johnny Cash and Janet Street-Porter.

These calls help establish, maintain and defend a breeding territory and from October the birds are at their most vocal.

Of course, Tawny Owls really couldn’t give two hoots about scaring us but throughout history these spectral calls have provided a soundtrack to our deepest fears.

In a society which is becoming increasingly detached from nature, it’s time to get out into the woods this Halloween and allow ourselves to be unsettled once again by these mystical birds.

By Michael Blencowe:
Learning & Engagement Officer, Sussex Wildlife Trust

Sussex Wildlife Trust is an independent registered charity caring for wildlife and habitats throughout Sussex. Founded in 1961, we rely on the support of our members to help protect our rich natural heritage. Please consider supporting our work. As a member you will be invited to join Michael Blencowe on our regular wildlife walks and also enjoy free events, discounts on wildlife courses, Wildlife magazine and our guide book: Discovering Wildlife in Sussex.
It’s easy to join online at: or T: 01273 497532.

Tawny Owl Phil Winter Sussex Wildlife Trust
tawny owls Darin Smith Sussex Wildlife Trust

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