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Owl calls: tell your tawny from your barn owl

How many of the five species of UK owl have you ever seen? They can be notoriously difficult to track down - most of them are out and about when the rest of us are tucked up inside, they come well camouflaged, and some make their homes in hard-to-reach places.

You might be more likely to hear an owl's call than to see it in the feather, but can you tell your tawny from your barn owl by sound alone?

Tawny owls are famous for their 'twit twoo' calls (Photo: iStock)
Tawny owls are famous for their 'twit twoo' calls (Photo: iStock)

Tawny owl (Strix aluco)

Large black eyes
Streaked brown plumage

Call

Female: sharp 'ke-wick'
Male: wavering 'hoohoo'  

Best time to hear

Autumn evenings when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting as early as February. Found in woodland habitats, but also churchyards, towns and cities with mature trees.

Barn owls can often be seen hunting during the day (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)
Barn owls can often be seen hunting during the day (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Barn owl (Tyto alba)

White undersides and face
Pale brown and grey wings and back

Call

Shrill screech, earning them the nickname 'screech owl'.

Best time to hear

At the beginning of the spring breeding season when males screech to attract females to nest. Females also produce contact calls to beg males for food. 

Little owls are not native to the UK (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)
Little owls are not native to the UK (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Little owl (Athene noctua)

Eye mask-shaped face
Pale yellow eyes

Call

Short, repetitive 'woop' or sharper 'kiew kiew'.

Best time to hear

During the breeding season from April when males advertise territories. Look for them in tree-rich farmland and pasture across England.

Long-eared owls are more nocturnal than other British owls (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)
Long-eared owls are more nocturnal than other British owls (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Long-eared owl (Asio otus)

Distinctive 'ear tufts'
Orange eyes

Call

Male song: repeated 'hoo hoo hoo'
Female call: higher-pitched 'hoo'
Male and female call: cat-like 'ree-yow'

Best time to hear

Rarely heard, and only ever during the breeding season in early spring. Look for them roosting in thickets and dense trees in well-wooded countryside. 

Short-eared owls from continental Europe migrate to the UK in winter (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)
Short-eared owls from continental Europe migrate to the UK in winter (Photo: northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)

Striking yellow eyes
Round, grey face

Call

Male song: fast and repetitive 'hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo' 
Male and female call: harsh bark

Best time to hear

The males' song is rarely heard in the UK, but birds will call to one another when gathered at winter hunting grounds. Sometimes breeds on moorland in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

Sound files courtesy of www.xeno-canto.org: tawny owl by Dominic Garcia-Hall; barn owl and little owl by Patrik Åberg; long-eared owl by Peter Boesman; short-eared owl by Stuart Fisher.  

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