Tawny Owl calls and vocalizations


REMARKABLY FOR SUCH A FAMILIAR BIRD, there is a lack of certainty about the calls Tawny Owls make, especially perhaps which sex makes which call. After many hours spent listening to them, both out in the wild and in captivity, I believe it is possible to come up with some more definite conclusions. And in fact the situation seems fairly straightforward.

Tawny Owls are vocal and expressive birds. When I listened to the first recordings I made by leaving a simple setup beneath a nest at night I realised I was hearing something rather special. These owls can be so expressive that you almost feel you understand what they are saying . . or at least feeling. You could say they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

When do Tawny Owls call? The main times to hear them are during the breeding season, which runs from March to May, and then again from August, when the adults have finished their moult. In June and July the adults tend to go silent (they don't feel too good during the moult) and only the young may be heard, squeaking for food throughout the night from dusk. August and September can be very active times vocally for adults as they set about reaffirming their territories in preparation for the next breeding season. However all the autumn and winter months can be good for hearing adults. They hunt and call between about 9-10 pm and dawn.

In the overview of the different calls that follows I've included short mp3 clips that can be referred to while reading the text. That's followed on pages 2 and 3 by longer clips that illustrate the calls in more detail. The main omission from this collection is calls made during courtship, calls which I hope to record one day.



Basically, 95% of the time you are going to hear just two calls from Tawny Owls -- the well-known hoot, and the "kewick". The full-volume hoot, hu ..... hu-hooooo, is made by the male, and as far as I know only by the male. It's a unique sound, and probably involves a use of the vocal apparatus that's not heard in any other tawny call, whether male or female. Male full hoot (196.96 K)

The female's main call, often represented as "kewick", is in fact more like u-wee, the "k"s being our way of representing the sharp beginning and cutoff of this call when made loudly. Most of the sounds a female makes are variants of this two-tone call, from almost inaudible mews and soft vocalisations that can only be heard close by to urgent, piercing calls that are ear-shattering at close range. Male and female (510.72 K)

The female cannot make the genuine male hoot, which carries for hundreds of yards. She can make a quieter version of it, but the "voice" with which she makes it is altogether different and it can't be heard at anything like the same distance. Nor does it have the long pause of the full male hoot. Female "hoot" (120.41 K)

Then there's a third main call which both sexes appear to make almost indistinguishably. It's a warbling call in a light, quiet voice, almost "sotto voce", that can be sustained for some time. What its meaning is and the occasions on which it's used are not well understood, but in some uses it does appear to indicate that the bird is in an unsettled or anxious state of mind. So, for example, it has been recorded as made by a bird near a forest fire. But it seems to be used in a variety of other situations, especially by arriving males when overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of a mate at the nest. Warble (male & female) (174.70 K)

At least three more vocalisations are made by both sexes. The first is what might be called "yelps". These are often heard in the expressive exchanges between a pair, but they may also be made by a bird on its own. This clip is of a nesting female calling while her mate was away. Yelps (female) (153.59 K)

Then there are wailing or moaning noises, again made by both sexes. Just now I'm not sure what these indicate. Wail (male & female) (67.36 K)

Another is what I call "yikkering". A version of this is the very first tiny sound that a Tawny chick makes after hatching, when its function seems to be to encourage the mother to attend to its needs. But later in the chick's development it also appears to signify protest or complaint: for example it's heard during rough and tumble when a chick is jostled by others. It continues to be used by adult owls, again as a protest, though here it's mainly made by captive birds when handled. Chick yikker and hiss (128.07 K)

While still in the nest the chicks develop a hissing call, heard in the previous clip, which is used to indicate hunger. Later, after fledging, this develops into a hoarse squeak with a very characteristic voiced timbre which the owlets use for some months after leaving the nest, in the period when their parents continue to feed them. Adults don't make these squeaks. Fledgling food call (236.23 K)

Other vocalisations are made during fights. These can best be described as wailing, screaming or caterwauling. Basically you might find it hard to tell the difference between a Tawny Owl fight and a cat fight. I've only heard males fighting. Tawny fight (123.99 K)

Back to the two main calls, hoot and kewick. The female can mimic the male after a fashion, but can the male do the female call? I have never heard a bird I've known to be a male doing a full-blooded kewick, but they can do quiet calls of a "yelp" type that sound like the female's u-wee. The times I've heard this the male has been "in conversation" with his mate at the nest when bringing in food. Male yelp-kewick (117.35 K) In the clip the male makes the second and fourth calls, and is plainly imitating his mate, but I wouldn't call it really convincing. It's really a type of yelp call, made with the intonation of the female's kewicks. The hissing in this clip is made by nestlings.

Finally, what of the famous tu-whit, tu-woo? It's an old wives' tale as far as I'm concerned. Something out of English folklore, given credibility by Shakespeare. It's a nice idea, but it just doesn't happen as a call made by a single bird. Nor, so far as I know, do owl pairs duet, in the sense that they deliberately "sing" or call together. An owl pair call to keep in contact, so sometimes their respective calls will fall close together kewick, hu-hoo. In my experience, however, it's an insignificant and chance occurrence that's bound to be heard once in a while but amounts to little justification for a charming piece of folklore. Tu-whit tu-woo? (61.75 K)

Page 2: Calls in more detail



IF ANYONE HAS INFORMATION that could help with this question I'd be very pleased to hear from you. For example, people who've reared young captive males. If you do write in, please be sure your bird really is a male! To avoid mistakes you need to be able to distinguish between his hoot and the female's rather different hoot.

The main questions I'm interested in are (1) whether the male's hoot develops gradually or is like an adult's when first made; and (2) if there are intermediate stages of development, what hoots made during this period sound like — for example, could they be confused with the female hoot?

It would also be useful to know when your bird made his first hoot, and, if there was a development stage, when it began and how long it lasted.


EMAIL: raham [at] btinternet.com



It's widely stated that males do — for example by no less an authority than Heimo Mikkola in his definitive work Owls of Europe.

Yet in many hours of recording and listening I have never heard a male do a kewick call, or anything that approaches it in loudness and intensity.

I have a sneaking suspicion that reports of males making the call may actually be based on observations of female owls! The confusion may arise when someone hears a female doing her hoot, thinks it is a male, and then hears her make the kewick call.

Again, I'd greatly appreciate hearing from anyone who has evidence one way or the other. Evidence from captive owls is obviously the most reliable.

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