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Quick facts

Common name: tawny owl

Scientific name: Strix aluco

Family: Strigidae (owls)

Habitat: woodland, occasionally parks and gardens

Diet: small mammals, birds

Predators: occasionally goshawks

Origin: native

What do tawny owls look like? 

Tawny owls have classic owl features, with a rounded head, large dark eyes and a hooked beak. They have a compact, powerful build with brown-grey feathers and rounded wings. Typical wingspan is up to one metre. 

Females typically weigh around 500g, which is roughly the same as a wood pigeon. Males are around 25% smaller. 

Tawny owl in flight with dormouse prey

Credit: Dale Sutton / 2020VISION / naturepl.com

What do tawny owls eat?

Mice and voles are the tawny owl’s main food source. These nocturnal hunters silently swoop down on their unsuspecting prey, plucking them from the forest floor. Sensitive sight and hearing allows owls to locate rodents, while their wing feathers have a soft furry edge that allows for soundless flight. They will take other prey on occasion, including birds, amphibians, young rabbits and even insects and worms when food is scarce.

Did you know?

Owls are famed for their eyesight, but their super-sensitive hearing is just as important for finding prey.

How do tawny owls breed?

Tawny owls normally mate for life and a pair will defend their shared territory from other owls all year round. After mating, the female lays her eggs in a cavity within a large tree. Old crows' nests and squirrel dreys may also be used.

Typically, two to three eggs are laid in spring, hatching after around a month. Before fledging, the young, known as owlets, will leave the nest and spend several days in the surrounding branches – a process that is called ‘branching’. The parents will continue to care for the young for a few weeks after fledging, with the owlets fully independent by the end of autumn.

Tawny owl perched with prey

Credit: Tony Cox / WTML

Where do tawny owls live?

Tawny owls can be found throughout the UK. Broadleaved woodland is their favoured habitat, but they may venture out into farmland when hunting. Tawny owls can sometimes be found in urban areas provided there is a sufficient number of large trees for roosting and breeding.

Signs and spotting tips

As nocturnal birds, tawny owls are more often heard than seen. Listen out for the characteristic 'hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo' call of the male and the shrill 'kew-wick' of the female in response. If you’re lucky, you may spot a roosting bird sleeping in a tree during the day. Pellets containing the remains of an owl’s food are a tell-tale sign that a roosting site is nearby.

Tawny owl sat on a post

Blog

Owl calls: tell your tawny from your barn owl

Amy Lewis  •  18 Dec 2017

Heard a screech in the night or hooting in the woods? One of the UK's five resident owl species could be at large. Learn to tell their calls apart and identify them without laying eyes on them.

Read the blog

Tawny owl call

Audio: Dominic Garcia-Hall / xeno-canto.org

Did you know?

The male tawny’s call is easy to imitate and owls will often respond to impersonators.

Threats and conservation

The UK’s tawny owl population is estimated to have fallen by more than a third since the 1970s. Exactly why the species is declining is unclear, but a loss of woodland habitat and suitable trees for nesting are likely factors.