If you are lucky enough to live close to the countryside, away from too much traffic noise or too many neighbours, you get to hear some wonderful sounds from the natural world. Of course, the dawn chorus is always a treat, but nocturnal birds are hooting and screeching away while we sleep. So, it is worth taking the time to stand outside at night and really listen in spring and autumn. But, what are we hearing? What makes those hooting and screeching noises?
Does A Tawny Owl Screech?
As a general rule, Tawny Owls do not screech but will make a lot of different noises depending on their sex and the time of year. Instead, they tend to make nicer, softer sounds and hoots instead. So you aren’t hearing things. Other creatures have screech and scream vocalisations instead.
You might be a little confused right now if you know that there are Tawny Owls in your area and that you have heard something screech. So, we need to get to the bottom of this. What calls can you expect Tawny Owls to make and what is doing all that screeching?
Not only will you learn more about these birds, but you will also find out that something we learnt as a child is a lie!
What Noise Does A Tawny Owl Make?
So now we know that it isn’t Tawny Owls doing all that screeching outside, we have two big questions to answer. What noise do Tawny Owls make if they don’t screech, and what Owl does screech? So let’s start with some of the confusion about what a Tawny Owl does.
The Tawny Owl makes three separate calls. They are a “keewick” sound, a “hoo” and a different territorial “hooing” call. Let’s start with all the “hooing”, as these are the most common. Around the autumn, Tawny Owls are at their most active in regards to their social calendar. Young birds are on the move and males are keen to establish a pairing with a female before breeding in the spring. Therefore, they will use a territorial call to tell other birds that this is their patch. This serves two purposes: alerting females to their presence to draw them in and telling other males to back off.
There are a few elements to the full call. It starts with a The territorial hooting call of a male Tawny Owl is probably the most familiar of UK owl calls, beginning with a drawn-out “hoo”, then a little “hu” after a pause, followed by the longer “huhuhuhooo.”
There are different skills involved here in the vocalisation, from the length of the phrases to the level of vibrato in the final statement. They may all sound the same to us, but females can tell the best from the worst.
The females have a very different sound. It is a “keewick” noise that sounds a little closer to that of other birds of prey, such as falcons. You won’t hear this one so much as it doesn’t have the same purpose as the male’s calls. Female calls are contact calls, which means they call out to a mate or chick or respond to something they have heard.
So, if you hear a “keewick” sound from a tree at night, it is most likely a female calling out or responding to her mate somewhere in the area. It is important to add that little disclaimer because males and females have been known to swap calls. If a female hoots, it isn’t with the same range of notes or strength as the male.
When this happens, it is a good idea to wait and see if you can hear a response. You may not be able to pick up the lower-toned male call if they are a long way away. This can make it sound as though the female is talking to herself. However, a male may respond close by enough for you to get a lovely duet of calls bouncing back and forth between the pair.
Which Owl Screeches?
There are five species of Owl in the UK and they all make very different noises. This can confuse things when listening out for owls as you may hear something unexpected. One of these owls screeches, and that is the Barn Owl. We might expect the Barn Owl to have an equally soft and pleasant call, but they aren’t nicknamed screech owls for anything.
The call is harsh and can get pretty shrill. So, if you hear a bird call at night piercing the air, it is probably a Barn Owl. They will probably stand out a lot more than the muted calls of the Tawny unless those Tawny Owls are in trees close to your house.
Another good way to tell the difference is through the time of year. While Tawny’s call in autumn when it is time to get a new territory, Barn Owls are most vocal in the spring when attracting males. The males call out to females to attract them to nest sites.
Females may also become more vocal when they want more food from their mates during this season. People living near and monitoring nest sites also note that the young can screech a lot when they want food – which is most of the time.
As for the other species of Owl, you are unlikely to hear two of them at night and mistake them for a Tawny or Barn Owl. The Little Owl has a harsher repetitive call that doesn’t have the same haunting feel as a screech or the softness of a Tawny Owl hoot.
You would also have to be pretty close to their home to hear them. The same is true for the upland-dwelling Short Eared Owl. This Owl has a call a lot like a bark, so it is again much different.
The only Owl that might cause some confusion when identifying calls is the Long-Eared Owl. There are different calls here depending on the sex of the bird and situation.
The male has a repetitious ‘hoo hoo hoo’ call that isn’t too unlike the hoo of a Tawny. The female has a singular higher-pitched hoo instead. They also have a cat-like yell. You are only likely to hear this if you live in or close to a forest area with a known population.
Lastly, it is worth remembering that vixens make a harsh screeching scream when they are ready to mate. So if you hear a strange noise at night in spring and it sounds too harsh to be an owl, it could be a local fox instead.
How Big Is A Tawny Owl?
As a general rule, male and female Tawny Owls are not very big and measure 37-39cm in length with a wingspan of just 94-104cm and weighing between 330 and 590g with the female often being the larger of the two.
One thing that you will quickly realise when looking for and listening to Tawny Owls in your garden is that you probably won’t see one. You may be lucky to catch a glimpse if one leaves the tree and passes near a street light. Otherwise, they will be tucked up nice and safe on one of the branches.
One reason that they are so difficult to see is that they aren’t very big. You could even walk past a tree with a camouflaged Tawny sitting at the entrance of a hole and not see it. They are around 37-39cm in length, have a wingspan of just 94-104cm, and weigh between 330 and 590g.
You will notice that there is a larger margin in weight than in height. Female Tawny Owls tend to be bigger than males. This isn’t necessarily the case across the whole population, but they tend to be heavier and a little taller. Female birds of prey often are so they can incubate a nest with ease while the agile male hunts for food. We also see this with the greatly different Sparrowhawk male and female and in Peregrine Falcons.
Can You Make A Tawny Owl Nest Box?
Nest boxes can be made to attract the Tawny Owl. These boxes are slightly different from those of other species due to their scale and depth from the entrance hole down into the box. They should measure approximately 32cm by 93cm by 36cm and be placed at least 5 metres off the ground, in a quiet and sheltered spot.
You could find a blueprint online to try making one or buy one from somewhere like the Barn Owl Trust. Garden owners that hear owls regularly in their garden and have some mature trees can take the time to add an owl nesting box and provide a safe site. In the wild, Tawny Owls use tree cavities but will also take advantage of any suitable nest boxes.
Other Tawny Owl Facts
Each of our five owl species lives in its own niche of the ecosystem with its own traits and preferences. The Tawny Owl prefer to be in woodland, or at least somewhere with a dense population of trees. Suburban gardens close to wilder areas are often great for visiting Tawnys, or perhaps even a nest if they are suitable.
As mentioned above, you are more likely to hear a Tawny Owl’s call in the autumn because of the emphasis on territorial calls. The birds pair up in early spring and tend to lay their eggs in March. By autumn, the surviving chicks are old enough to move on and try and establish territories of their own.
Another interesting thing about their nesting habits is that they use an asynchronous hatching strategy. This isn’t uncommon in owls as it allows for one dominant chick to raise and others that are basically back-ups in case it dies. In hard times, the weaker, younger chick may starve or even become food for the eldest.
These birds are nocturnal feeders that take advantage of their big round eyes, asymmetrical ears, and silent wing feathers to hunt for small mammals. If you find a Tawny Owl pellet, it is most likely to contain bones and fur from voles and mice. But, they can take small birds, frogs and other nutritious snacks.
On average, these birds will live for around 4 years. This is measured by the number of fatalities early on in life as youngsters struggle to survive or fail to make it to maturity. Adults fair much better when in strong territories, although accidents and illness can occur. The BTO states that the eldest known ringed bird was 23 years 5 months 27 days old.
Which Owl Goes Twit Twoo?
With all of this information about the different calls of the owls in your area, you may be left with one important final question. Which one goes Twit Twoo? When asked what an owl sounds like and what we say to little kids when teaching them about wildlife, we tend to make this sound. But is it just an artificial construct for the sake of some cartoons or a real call?
The answer is actually somewhere in the middle. There isn’t one single Owl that makes a “twit twoo” call in the way we may hear in a cartoon. However, if you spend some time listening to Tawny Owls, you will see where the idea came from. The “twit” is a version of the female’s “keewick”, while the “twoo” is the male’s “hoo” noise. At some point, the two were accidentally merged and considered one single call. So, you can hear owls sort of making a “twit twoo” noise through your window, but only if there is a pair of Tawny Owls out there.
If you hear a screech of an owl from your garden or out in the wild somewhere. It is probably a Barn Owl rather than a Tawny Owl. Barn Owls have that more piercing call and use it often in spring, while the Tawny Owls have a much softer “owl-like” call.
You may hear a tuneful hooting from a tree or the call and response of a “keewick-hoo” that we think of as a “twit-twoo”. Take the time to see who you can hear at night and think about how you can make your garden more Owl friendly.
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