On clear winter nights when stars sparkle in the sky and not even the slightest breath of wind rustles the trees, the darkness stays deafeningly silent in my area of the countryside. But occasionally, two solitary noises disturb the silence: the cry of a vixen somewhere in the forest and a haunting hooting that rolls through the air. Haunting, but captivating. Many times I have found myself stood in the freezing garden listening intently to this call. I imagine you have guessed by now what I am talking of? It is of course, the tawny owl.
The tawny owl is our most common nocturnal hunter, and we should therefore expect to see such specimens in our parks, forests and even our gardens during the night hours. However, recently a rather worrying trend has befallen these magnificent owls; their numbers are falling. Indeed, according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), few people have been reporting sightings of these owls in and around their gardens. It is a deep concern for conservationists, with many asking for the public to keep a look (and a listen) out for these nocturnal hunters so that they can keep track of their current population status.
Although in general we know owls to be a very vocal group of birds, tawny owls become particularly vocal in the last few months of the year. This is as a result of fledged young who should now be dispersing to locate their own territories, with pairs communicating with each other through their duet calls. Unfortunately, so far, such voices have been rather absent from our nights, with the owls only being reported in 3.6% of gardens. This is the second lowest figure recorded for a decade and is in keeping with the new status of the tawny owl. Once again, we see another one of our species added to the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern. This demotion came just weeks ago and is no doubt a result of their downward population trend.
But hang on, surely it is always difficult to monitor a nocturnal species? Maybe if we sat up all night every night and saw or heard none, then we could worry? The question is, how do we know? Unfortunately, if that was our last slither of hope to cling to, that too has been dashed. In the past 25 years, there are signs that breeding numbers of tawnys have fallen by approximately a third. The BTO has stated that data from tawny owl nest records shows that this year, the birds have had a poor breeding season, which could likely be a result of poor prey availability. Add this to the fact that numbers found by the BTO garden birdwatch are very low, we begin to see that there is a rather worrying path being paved for our tawny owls.
The absolute reason for the decline of the tawny owl is yet to be identified and although it may seem dramatic, the last thing we want is another species that falls ominously onto our Red List. However, there are things we can do to help. Leaving spaces of unmown grassy patches in our gardens encourages rodents, and if you have a ready supply of tawny owl prey, you may see one or two beginning to visit your garden. In addition, if you are lucky enough to have large trees in your garden, put up a tawny owl nesting box.
Such suggestions may seem small and even pitiful, but they may make all the difference to a struggling species. After all:
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
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