By Michael Blencowe
Senior Learning and Engagement Officer
Once upon a time we were terrified of Tawny Owls. They were a portent of evil in fairytales, folklore and just about every scary story, film or poem that needed a creepy cliché.
But in today’s crowded marketplace of global pandemics and economic recession, the owl’s powers to scare us are fading. And recently it appears this spokesperson 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 there's still something eerie about standing out in my garden at night and listening to 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 and typically nests 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 its body 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.
Here's a great clip of a female's call and the male's song
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 and allow ourselves to be unsettled once again by these mystical birds.