A pair of tawny owls feed in my garden each night, rewarding me with some incredible sightings. Last year they even brought their chicks to the bird table and on one occasion I got these photographs of them balancing on the branch outside my living room window! It has been fantastic watching them at such close quarters, they are such characters. The way they bob up and down when they spot something new is so funny.
I’ve been putting food out for tawny owls to encourage them into the garden for some years now. I use them as models for my paintings and many of the pictures of tawny owls that hang in my gallery are portraits of this particular family. On one occasion my favourite male model, who features in the painting below, got caught in a scuffle and nearly lost his eye! Thankfully it healed up and I went on to paint him again.
The adult pair returns each year to nest in a line of sycamore trees just below my gallery. Some years ago I hoisted a hollowed-out stump into one of the trees and encouraged them to use that to nest in.
I wanted to use this nest box solely because it made an attractive prop for the backdrop of my paintings. Last year it came into its own. The adult pair had four chicks of their own and became surrogate parents to six more after I was given some by Ryedale Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. The tawny parents didn't appear to be able to count and took to the role of feeding what now amounted to 10 chicks without hesitation. I helped the parent birds along by offering extra food out on the bird table. It was quite dramatic the day these chicks fledged. We had had a week of torrential rain and the owlets got so wet their feathers were too sodden to be able to fly back up to the safety of the nest. I couldn’t help myself when I saw the fledglings soaked to their skins, their feathers stuck fast to their bodies. I scooped them up and brought them inside to dry them off with my wife's hair drier before popping them carefully back into nest.
Tawny owls are adventurous birds and once they’ve decided to explore the world outside the nest there’s no stopping them. They often venture out before they have learned to fly. I had to rescue the fledglings two more times that same week! Tawny owls are one of the earliest owls to nest and are often sitting on eggs by March. They nest in a hole in a tree, but will readily use specially designed nest boxes which replicate these natural sites.They usually lay three to four eggs but clutches ranging between one and seven have been recorded. From these clutches, two or three young will be successfully raised each year - so my success was really incredible.
The female does most of the incubating of the eggs as well as nurturing the chicks in the early stages. The male meanwhile hunts both for the female, himself and the chicks. After 32 to 34 days the chicks start to hatch. Their hatching is staggered as owls will begin incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. This means that the chicks can vary in size from the start. Only the strongest survive, especially if food is in short supply. The chicks grow quickly in the early days and the female will start hunting to keep up with the demand for food.
By four of five weeks, the chicks start trying to leave the safety of the nest. As I discovered, this is quite precarious because often these adventures take place well before they can actually fly. And, of course, their explorations take place several metres above ground. Accidents happen and young chicks frequently end up on the ground where they can look rather helpless and abandoned. However, this is quite natural and all part of growing up.
Passers-by often make the mistake of picking up these young owls and taking them away, thinking that they are rescuing them. Instead, it is better to find their nesting tree, which is usually nearby. It shouldn’t be difficult to spot as there is usually a hole in the tree. Put them either back into the hole or onto a sheltered branch close to the trunk so that they are off the ground and away from predators. But be careful, tawny owls are very protective parents and if the adult birds spot you near their chicks they will attack you!! It would be safer to wear a helmet and if you are at all in doubt don’t worry about leaving them on the nearest branch, they are capable of climbing up vertical trunks with their claws and beak
Come dusk, they will start to call and let their parents know where they are and that they are hungry again. Tawny owls are devoted parents and will look after their chicks until September, but come October the parents will shoo them away and my new models have to find their own territories. It can be a noisy time as you hear them sending the chicks off. It seems cruel but it’s all part of growing up and perfectly natural. These chicks will need to find their own territory with enough food to sustain them if they are to survive, and the parents know that.
The latest brood have now gone from the garden and I miss them. But the adults have been protecting the nest site so they are clearly getting ready again for next year.