15-20 September

So, yes, thank goodness, we've found both the owls. A couple of night recordings at the beginning of the week suggested that the two females were around . . but little more. These night recordings are unmanned — I leave the equipment out at dusk, usually tied to a tree, and hope for the best. It's difficult to get a positive ID with a recording, especially if the owls aren't nearby. On the second night a female came right up to the recording equipment and kewicked loudly. It wasn't Sophie, but I couldn't be sure it was Zoe as she was too young to make adult calls while she was with me. However, the way the kewicks were made sounded very much the way I imagined Zoe would make them as she has a bit of way with noises! There's a recording lower down.


Magic tricks with an iPod nano

On Wednesday evening (17th) we did something I've never done before. Keen to actually see the birds, and knowing Sophie would almost certainly respond, we loaded up Corinne's nanoPod with half a dozen calls and went to where I knew at least Zoe was likely to be roosting. We took just female calls as I didn't want to risk alarming them. One call I was certain must work was Sophie herself doing three girly hoots as when I played it to her in London she'd invariably take to the air and hoot excitedly.

We sat in the hornbeam grove near Zoe's favoured roosting site, turned on and waited expectantly. Familiar owl calls went out through the gathering dusk — Sophie and Zoe's own mother doing kewicks and yelps, wails from another female, and Sophie's hoots. We couldn't play them too loudly or they'd sound a little artificial through the tiny speakers. I don't think Corinne expected anything to happen. But I had faith as I knew how recordings invariably tipped Sophie into the air.

The sequence of clips played through to the end, maybe a couple of minutes' worth. "Again", I said to my disk jockey (I don't know how to work an iPod!). Suddenly, about half way through, an owl flew in from the right and perched on a low branch not far in front of us. There was still just enough light to see she had a pale face — it was Zoe! She had a good look at us before flying off to the left about 15 seconds later — not enough to get binos on her unfortunately, but the paleness of her facial disk is distinctive and I had no doubt it was indeed Zoe.

But still no Sophie, so after a brief pause we started up the owl playlist again. About half way through — and I swear just as the clip of Sophie herself hooting was playing — a second owl flew from the right and through trees 50-60 yards away. This owl was too far away to identify in the fading light . . . she was flying through the wood, past the trunks of a group of tall oaks. Could it be Sophie? Then, in mid-flight, she let out a hoot, a female hoot, a hoot just the way Sophie makes them. So it was Sophie. It was the first time in the five weeks since the release that I could feel sure she'd made it. And of course, as I'd begun to suspect after the long search for her in the countryside for miles around, she'd been there all the time!

Click on thumbnail for a large map showing the owls' territory (350 kb)

Other "hearings"

Once I learned to recognise Zoe's hoot calls I realised I was hearing from her every day, sometimes twice a day — first in the evenings when I went to place the recording equipment and then the next day when I went to collect it around lunchtime. I'd call her name, and soon after she'd respond with a single hoot from her regular roosting place. On the second evening we had quite an animated conversation as she flew over me to the release wood and then back again. It was our first encounter, and clearly she was quite excited about it! Sophie, who's a much less vocal owl, I've only heard in the recordings (apart from the time she flew past us and hooted). I still have to go through all of the 30+ hours of recordings, so there may be some surprises yet.


Zoe's way with calls

Zoe's a remarkable little owl in several ways, and she makes noises like I've heard from no other tawny. She's basically a wailer — she tends to draw out her calls for maximum effect. So her kewicks can be rather distinctive:

Zoe's kewicking 580 kb

That was her in Tinker wood on 16th September. In fact, as she did an exact repeat a couple of nights later, when the recording equipment was about 150 yards from the first location and within hearing range of her roost, she must have remembered where she heard me setting up and flown over later to investigate. When she spotted the gear she put on a litttle show! How nice.


Sophie and Zoe meet a man!

The first night I recorded (Mon 15th) I put the equipment three hundred yards or so southwest of Tinker wood. The reason for doing this was to find out if the owls had continued across the orchard where I'd heard them three weeks before and taken up residence in another area of woods beyond a ridge. They hadn't, of course, but I was lucky to get this recording of the first activity of the evening.

It's about 8.10 pm and we're listening out across this large commercial apple orchard surrounded by woods and tree belts. A male owl has come into the area and has been hooting occasionally for 15 minutes or so. He's not accompanied by a female — the females in the recording are mainly Sophie with contributions from Zoe. As they don't usually leave their roosts until well after 8 it's likely that they've come directly from where they've been sleeping to meet the interloper in their orchard.

What's interesting is that there's no territorial stuff here. What's going on is a big flirting session between the male and Sophie. It actually sounds very like interactions one hears between a married pair during the nesting season. The male hoots, wails and yelps, and Sophie responds with excited kewicks and some yelps of her own. Little Zoe — who's too young still for such things — can occasionally be heard chipping in with her wheezy hoots. A little while later the two females went back to their wood and I guess the male returned to his own patch.

The recording is quite long (2min 15s) and has had to be amplified a lot (about 25 times!). This means I've had to filter heavily to cut down the roar of traffic from miles around. But needless to say, I find this first recording of how Sophie responds to a male tawny rather interesting!

Sophie, Zoe and a male visitor 2.5 Mb

What will also be interesting is what will happen if Sophie decides this man is for her. Will she go off to his territory — the usual outcome — or will he join the two girls? If Sophie moves in with him, will Zoe be allowed to accompany them? At the moment they're in the rather unusual situation of being two females holding their own territory.


Sophie calls Zoe back to base

Sophie's a lot less talkative than Zoe and is proving hard to pick up on the equipment. Here she is doing something that interests me as it identifies one way a female owl lets another know it wants that owl to show up. Recording is from Friday 19th September.

For the previous hour since they left their roosts I'd heard the two girls in each other's company in fields and stream tree belts off to the east. The calls were faint in the recording, so they must have been some way off. Then at 10.25pm Sophie struck up with a series of yelps from Tinker wood, quite close by, where they roost. She kept this up for some time, and it struck me that she might be calling Zoe to come. And indeed about 12 minutes later Zoe did turn up. After an exchange of greetings they went off south to the orchard. It seems that Sophie had it in mind to go there and wanted Zoe to accompany her.

Here's a clip of Sophie beginning her yelp calls, and then after the fadeout the exhange when Zoe turned up. Zoe's the one who does the female hoot, with Sophie making the higher-pitched kewick-type calls. Apologies for the quality — jets and traffic had to be heavily suppressed in the recording.

Sophie calls Zoe 865 kb

Zoe's mother made these yelp or "wick" calls near the nestbox this spring when it seemed she wanted one of the older chicks to fledge. It didn't have much effect — the chicks just sat up listening but didn't make a move! Nevertheless, for other reasons it was fairly clear she was becoming impatient with the older one and was trying to get him to fledge. So it's interesting to hear Sophie using the same call to summon Zoe. (Here's their mother making the call: Mrs Owl yelping. 980 kb)

Those female "hoots" . . .

Female tawnies do hoot, but they do it in a special way that's quite different from the boys and makes a female instantly recognisable as such. In fact I tend to believe that it's the call of an unpaired female and probably serves to let prospective partners know she is free. Once she has a mate she confines herself to the kewick as her main contact and self-announcing call. I've never heard one of our local married females doing a hoot. Unpaired females do both types of call.

Here's Sophie doing a hoot:

Single female hoot 115 kb

Here's a blow by blow comparison with the male's hoot:

Male and female hoot 590 kb

And here's a couple of wild females, neither of them ours, one kewicking and the other hooting:

Hemsted Forest females 300 kb

Building up a territory

Listening through the recordings it's gradually become possible to form an idea of the two owls' territory. This is shown by the dashed yellow line in the map (see top of page). The main point of interest is that the female of the Pympne pair is very active along the northeast margin and has probably been responsible for pushing our pair out of Pump wood, where they were released. They do still go into this wood, but the centre of their territory is now Tinker wood, which is where they roost. They are fortunate in having little pressure from owls in other parts of their territory as there don't seem to be many around. The exception is the male Sophie met on Monday night. He comes from somewhere to the south, but he doesn't seem inclined to cause problems! It's interesting that it's been the Pympne female who makes her presence felt in Pump wood rather than her mate. I have many night recordings from this wood made earlier in the summer, and in them the male never comes near the wood. The Pympne pair roost somewhere in Uppergate wood, some 500 yards to the north.

Part of the preparation for Sophie's release was to take her for walks through her future territory so she would be familiar with it from the start. Here we are near Backtilt wood on Juy 24th, two and a half weeks before release. At this particular location we're probably in an area the Pympne tawnies would consider belonged to them!


The significance of Sophie's release

Following Sophie's progress may sound like good fun, but it also has some significance. This is because, quite simply, it shouldn't be possible! The significance of this release is that, for reasons beyond my control, she'd been in captivity for three and a half years. Its additional significance is that it's the only case I know of where a Tawny Owl of her age has been deliberately set free and the owl's subsequent progress monitored.

It is widely believed that in captivity young owls become "imprints" — meaning that feeding, handling and other human contact make them fixate on the handler to such an extent that they believe the human is their parent. This, the story goes, makes them incapable of surviving in the wild. You will often see or hear claims that they think they are humans. The upshot of this belief is that many rescued fledglings are kept captive for the rest of their lives.

The scientific improbability of the notion that rescued owl chicks undergo filial, or parental, imprinting on a human (improbable because it can only happen in the first hours of a hatchling's life, and almost all these birds are rescued much later than that) has no effect on this belief, which you will hear from absolutely anybody and everybody who's involved with owls. Nor do an increasing number of post-release studies, which are showing that rescued and human-reared tawny youngsters have exactly the same chance of survival out in the wild (about 50% in the first months) as naturally reared chicks. Or indeed a seminal academic study of a Great Horned Owl that was specifically undertaken to determine whether deliberate attempts to imprint a rescued chick would affect its ability to survive after release. They didn't, and in fact the study showed that imprinting wasn't an issue — it didn't happen. This famous owl was released in 1988 and was most recently seen six months ago, 20 years later.*

As for Zoe, she's an amazing example of just how determinedly independent a young owl can be! Despite being fed and handled by me from an early age, she developed into a completely wild little thing. Attempts to pick her up provoked indescribable wailing and howling, and she'd bite and grip my fingers with ferocious strength, digging in her claws and drawing blood. After one or two experiences I always handled her with gloves. I couldn't approach her without her flying away. And yet this remarkable little owl turned out to be very friendly, as towards the end of her stay she'd fly down to my bed in the wee hours, walk over and get on my hand. There she'd play with my fingers, nibbling or gripping gently with her toes. I was astonished the first time this happened, but she did it several times. I was even able to raise my hand with her on and stroke her. Was she becoming imprinted? I hardly think so as I still wasn't allowed to approach or touch her at other times, and she continued to fight and howl unconsolably on the few occasions I had to hold her.

Sophie, the imprinters would say, should be leaping on to my shoulder every time I go into the woods, seeking the company of "her own kind", a human. The reality is quite the opposite.The fact is that this exceedingly tame, human-accustomed owl refuses to come and meet me, or even talk from a safe distance. I call her, I know she's somewhere nearby, but she clearly made the transition to the wild almost instantly and is much less inclined than "wild" little Zoe to show up.

As for me, I'm delighted it should be this way. But there's a sterner test coming up than finding their first mice — winter. Only after they've got through that can they be said to be truly established in the wild.

(To be continued)



* The story of this owl, called Stripey, is told in Messages from an Owl by Max Terman, Princeton University Press 1996. There's an update from January 2005 on this page of the Hillsboro Free Press. Latest information (2008) from the author.

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Sunset over Tinker wood (left), where our two owls have moved. The wood they were released in is behind the camera.

Sophie (left) and Zoe taken about a month before release. The pic doesn't show it too well, but Sophie is an altogether more chestnutty owl, with quite a deeply coloured facial disk, whereas Zoe is greyer. The relative paleness of Zoe's face is added to by the prominent pale "bib" below her cheeks, a feature Sophie lacks.