AMONG ITS OTHER RESIDENTS the owl sanctuary has amassed quite a large collection of Tawny Owls, almost all the victims of accidents or nest falls. Most of them live in a flight cage equipped with roosting boxes and surrounded by shrubs and creepers, which suits them just fine. The wounded and the orphans are constantly brought in, and at one time there were 32 tawnies in the cage! But that's rather too many to have cooped up together, so in 2006 the owners released the more able-bodied back into the wild. At least some have survived as they've been heard by neighbours. One has even been returning regularly to the house a year later.
Here's a pot-pourri of tawny portraits.
I like this couple. Somehow you just know that the owl standing proprietorially behind the one with the demure expression is the husband. This is a pair with quite chestnutty colouration, and his facial disk is smaller than hers.
By contrast, this is quite a pale bird. He or she is in a separate cage
Here the owls are much easier to photograph than in the wild! Some of the variety shown by tawnies can be seen in the photos. Many have distinctive faces, so along with other distinguishing characteristics many individuals can be told apart quite easily. You can also see the range of colour -- from quite pale to rich chestnut -- and variation in the size of the facial disk.
A surprising thing about these captive owls is that they're really rather sociable. You don't see more than a handful in the cage at the same time, so when I asked the owner somewhat sceptically where all the 32 owls were, he said Aha!, went to one of the roosting boxes and scooped out what seemed an endless stream of tawnies. It was the same in other boxes. Somehow at least six, and possibly 8-10, birds manage to squeeze themselves into each box -- and clearly like it that way!
Right: A photo showing what dumpy little creatures they are. There's almost more head to this bird than anything else. He or she is lying more or less across the box, so there's little foreshortening. The fact is that tawnies are quite small birds that put on a remarkable illusion of being bigger than they are. The skull itself occupies less than half of the bouffant mane of feathers on the head, and the body is a short pod that can be held in the hand. Apart from the long legs, everything else is feathers. The true size is seen when a tawny gets very wet. My first owl had to be showered once after he took a bath in a bucket of dilute bleach -- and I simply couldn't believe how tiny he was under all those feathers! (This pic 12 June 2007)
Many of these birds have been brought in after collisions with vehicles, and as a result many have injuries to their eyes. But perhaps the most surprising cause of disablement is shown by three Tawny Owls that were found at Sangatte, on the French side of the Channel Tunnel. These birds had apparently been watching welding work that was being done at night and were permanently blinded by the bright torches.
More pics taken May and June 2006
The day I visited in June to photograph the tawnies was very warm, with the temperature reaching 26°C (79°F). My Nikon Coolpix outdid itself, fluffing nearly every pic. Here are some that worked.
Left: 17 May Orphaned within three weeks of coming into the world, two tawny chicks from different parents find comfort in each other. Behind is a Bengal Eagle Owl chick born at the rescue centre. Right: the same tawny chicks on 12 June. The were released locally, with food left out in case they needed it.
Left: 12 June The Bengal Eagle Owl chick born in the sanctuary was keeping cool by draping itself over the bottom of a box when I photographed it from outside the cage. Right: When I went in he retreated to the back of the box and stared at me fiercely!
Some paler tawnies
With tawnies the grand division is between the "normal" red-brown type, known as "rufous morphs", and paler birds, or "grey morphs". The rufous morph is usually thought to be predominant in the UK, but my impression is that the sample in the flight cage has quite a few individuals who tend to the pale side. Here are a couple of paler tawnies to illustrate.
Gilbert is a wonderful old bird who's one of the rare exceptions in the flight cage -- he's not in the centre as the result of an accident but was donated many years ago by a previous owner. He's quite tame and is the owl who gets taken out to shows. Interestingly, as well as being pale he's also unusually large for a British tawny. More on this below.
Gilbert is a nice example of a grey morph. He's towards one end of a continuous spectrum of colouring that has at its other end the more familiar chestnut-coloured birds.
The next five photos are of a bird with intermediate colouration. This one's most noticeable characteristic, as with Gilbert and Vesna's owl on page 4, is the almost colourless feathers of the facial disk, although the back and wings are also marked by slightly paler feathers than the full rufous phase. The photos below show the same individual in front, side and back view.
Greyer Tawny Owls are actually quite common and appear to have some advantages over their rufous counterparts. Studies suggest they may be less susceptible to intestinal parasites and have greater breeding success.
(Photographed 17 May 2006)
March 2007: Is Gilbert a boy or a girl?
Gilbert's name, needless to say, means that he's thought to be a male. His exact age isn't known, but he came to the centre as an adult 10 years ago. The other night I was passing his cage with Sophie, my own tawny, in a pet carrier after collecting her from the "owl hotel" at the centre. Spotting Sophie, Gilbert began to talk, and one of the calls he made was exactly like the second in this recording:
The first call is the authentic male hoot, made here by a wild tawny patrolling his territory. The second is my owl doing her girly version of the hoot as I don't have a recording of Gilbert. Though superficially similar, the calls are easily distinguished once you're familiar with them -- the male hoot is a powerful sound that carries for hundreds of yards, but I doubt you'd hear the female version much more than 75 yards away. So it seems that Gilbert may not be a boy after all!
What's interesting about hearing Gilbert do this hoot is simply his age. I've been wondering for a long time whether Sophie's "hoot" isn't just a call made by an immature bird as it has a "babyish" quality. But here was an owl known to be well over 10 years old making the exact same sound. For a moment I couldn't believe it was him and not Sophie down by my side, who by the way was a little short of her 2nd birthday at the time.
Another indication that Gilbert may be female is his/her large size, probably larger than any of the (now) 20 or so other tawnies in the flight cage. I sometimes wonder if he (or she) is of European stock, as the tawnies there are a different "race" from ours and generally larger and heavier. As Patricia Brito has shown by genetic studies, after the last ice age the smaller tawnies that eventually colonised the British Isles began their journey in the Balkans. Our tawnies are not so closely related to those just over the Channel in France, or in Iberia or Germany. (For her study see Brito (2005) on Reference page 1.)
Anyway, Gilbert's recently taken on one of the other birds as a companion, so it'll be interesting to see if there's further confirmation from the calls they make -- or even what they get up to together! This could be useful as I still need convincing evidence that the sexes make the different hoots and can't make each other's hoot. (There's more on tawny calls on the Tawny Owl calls page.)
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