Walnut and Ash

by | 20 Jun, 2023 | Nature, Wildlife | 0 comments

Recently, I’ve been fortunate. I have been in the company of Owls.

The first, a Barn Owl, took me by surprise as I planted out courgettes. I have plans to write a longer piece about that encounter, so for now I’ll leave you with a photograph I took that evening.

Hunting Barn Owl. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner

The second involves Owlets. A pair of Tawny Owlets which I stumbled upon just over a week ago at the edge of our garden. There have been Owlets here before (I suspect the adults lay their eggs in an old Raven nest out the back) but I only saw them as passing shadows once dusk had set in. It was a bewitching sight; three young Owls all calling to their parents as the first stars blinked, feathered silhouettes alighting on rooftops like parka-clad gargoyles, but their proximity to the darkness meant that as much as I saw them, I couldn’t really see them. They were loud, insistent; obvious in so many ways, but always shrouded by nightfall, always more shade than light.

The Owlets I saw recently were different. Their begging calls coaxed me down to the end of the garden, where a cluster of pine trees block the sky. I didn’t expect to see them, not in the sunlight and not in full view. Yet out in the open, sunlit and bright, were a pair of Tawny Owlets, one perched on a Walnut tree and one on an Ash.

Tawny Owl Owlet. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner

I’ll never know, but I sensed I was the first human they’d ever seen. They watched me with a tepid sort of curiosity comprising, if anything, more nonchalance than fear, then went on with their begging calls as if I was merely a bipedal shrub. 

I, on the other hand, could feel myself melting. I have seldom seen anything so charming. I have a soft spot for Owls; I don’t know where it comes from but they have always beguiled me, with Tawny Owls being my favourite of all. I think it’s their eyes – those unfathomable, obsidian-like eyes, Guinness-dark and knowing in ways I can only imagine. And their feathers, all those mottled browns and creams, blending so perfectly with tree bark that when roosting they become arborescent, indistinguishable from the tree save only for the sharpest of eyes. 

Tawny Owl Owlets. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner

The Owlets were half way to their tree-like plumage, their primary and tail feathers latte-coloured and barred, but downy feathers still clung to their heads, backs and breasts, making them delightfully fluffy. If I didn’t have such an aversion to the word, I’d call them ‘cute’, although I know that’s a poor description for a Tawny Owl. Their big eyes and round faces might trigger our brains to release dopamine and oxytocin, the same chemicals that flood our senses when we look at Human babies, but they are Owls, predatory birds which stop the hearts of unsuspecting mammals and birds without a second thought. 

In 1937, bird photographer Eric Hosking lost his left eye to a Tawny Owl. He was returning to a photographic hide when a female bird struck. Although sad, the attack caused a great deal of publicity for Hosking and boosted demand for his photography. Instead of demonising the Owl, he was refreshingly philosophical about the attack, concluding that he only needed one eye for photography anyway. His autobiography, fittingly, is called An Eye for a Bird. Hosking isn’t the only person to have been attacked by a protective Tawny Owl. Artist Robert E Fuller has been knocked off his feet by a Tawny. Luckily, he was wearing a helmet at the time, but he described the attack as: ‘like being hit with a brick’. Another series of notable Tawny Owl attacks are detailed by wildfowler W. A. Cadman. His behaviour was undoubtedly antagonistic, as he repeatedly climbed towards a nest box with two Owlets in it. Consequently, he received a number of blows from the mother Owl but, undeterred, Cadman continued to visit the nest, sometimes feeding the chicks, who he believed regarded him as a: ‘supernumerary parent’. Eventually, using a net, Cadman managed to catch the female Owl and ring her but flabbergastingly, when you consider the disturbance he must have been causing, the next day he climbed the tree where the nest box was again. This time, however, the female Owl attacked him from a different angle, stooping from above and hitting him with a terrific impact, triggering Cadman to admit that: ‘after all she had undoubtedly carried away the honours’ and to finally leave her and her family in peace.

Tawny Owls don’t only attack humans – there are numerous clips online of them taking on other predators: Pine Martens, Ospreys, Buzzards, other Owls and even Goshawks. Each time, the attacks happen at night, when the Tawnies have a distinct advantage (with the exception of the attack on the Barn Owl) but it’s still fascinating behaviour, especially, I think, in the case of the Goshawk, as in the daylight hours the advantage would be flipped, as seen here. (Goshawks can, and do, kill Tawny Owls). In the majority of the clips, you’ll notice that the Tawny Owls strike female birds which are brooding their eggs and/or young, making them easy targets. But from the Owls’ point of view, Raptors are a threat, so its logical that they’ll try to drive them away or disturb incubation. 

Of all the Tawny Owl clips I’ve watched recently, the most interesting involves this Owlet, of about the same age as the two I discovered at the edge of our garden. This Owlet, however, is on the ground. Somewhere close by, an adult Tawny Owl calls. A Fox approaches the Owlet. The youngster is stoic, standing still as a statue. The Fox seems perplexed. It’s not used to its prey being so defiant. It tries to nip the Owlet, but there is still no reaction. Eventually, after a stand off, the Fox knocks the Owlet backwards with its paw, at which point the youngster spreads its wings and takes on a defensive pose. The Fox tries again and again to grab the Owlet’s wings, but is deterred each time by the Owlet’s reactions, sharp beak and talons. Eventually the Fox, confused by the fierce, fluffy, and impressively phlegmatic creature in front of it seems to fully acknowledge the Human filming through the trees and retreats into the woodland, leaving the Owlet unscathed.


As I watched the two Owlets at the end of our garden, wondering how long I could feasibly stay before my presence changed from being a minor curiosity to a threat, I noticed a brown shadow pass through the trees behind them. Their mother. She must have been watching my every move. I don’t think I was near enough to her offspring to trigger an attack, as they were now both sitting on a dead Ash branch high above me. But I didn’t want to worry her, so I reluctantly turned and left.

I snuck back a few days later and watched one of the Owlets preening itself for a good fifteen minutes before it realised I was there, hidden as I was beneath the foliage of the old Walnut tree.

Tawny Owl Owlet. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner

Since then I’ve left them. If I had the audacity of Cadman, I’d watch them every day, but I know that would be selfish of me. So instead, I sit in the garden at dusk and listen out for their begging calls amongst the pines, and feel happy that they’re still here, even if I can’t see them. 

Tawny Owlet sketch/drawing by Kerrie Ann Gardner

A pencil drawing I made of one of the Owlets. 

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