Nights are really drawing in now as we drift into autumn and the year dips towards its grand finale of blazing colour. The lengthening hours of darkness, which may perhaps have us fostering thoughts of more evenings spent in front of the fire, are nevertheless when the creatures of the night properly come into their own. Compared with most of them, we are extremely limited when it comes to finding our way about in the dark. Our reliance upon electricity in modern times has perhaps dulled our senses!
There is of course, no dulling of the senses in the case of the creatures of the night. Many of our mammals are much more active under the cover of darkness. Foxes, for instance, tend to lie up during daylight hours and generally spend most of their nights hunting. And where they are still relatively common, one of the fox's favourite sources of food, the rabbit is also especially active at night, as are most of our roe deer. And of course badgers are almost exclusively out and about during the hours of darkness.
However, the real epitome of night-time living is surely the owl. Indeed, the screeching of an owl during recent nights has reminded me that as autumn progresses, so too do our owls become more vocal. This is especially true of our commonest owl, the tawny. And it is one such owl that has been screeching so plaintively here. The reason for this vocalisation is that this year's youngsters now find themselves in a situation in which they are no longer tolerated in their parents' territory and so must go out into the big wide world and establish territories for themselves.
However, for them it is a tough and demanding quest, as good territories are inevitably at a premium. A good territory, of course, is one that yields plenty of suitable rodent prey and so naturally, well-established adult owls are at pains to defend such established territories and give the shortest possible shrift to territory seeking, vagrant young owls. In addition, tawny owls seem particularly eager to make vocal contact with other tawny owls during this dispersal, presumably especially with their own siblings. However, some of the calling may indeed take the form of warnings to those territory-seeking youngsters that they are trespassing!
Humankind appears to be fascinated by owls. Indeed when it comes to owl-like knick-knacks, whether they are soft toys or ornaments made from pottery, wood or metals such as bronze, they literally fill many a craft shop shelf. And it isn't just us who are thus fascinated for owls are prominent in many cultures around the globe. Come to think of it, owls also figure in many of the books I read as a child.
And owls, we are told almost from our infancy, are wise, an assumption which perhaps is supposed because in many ways, owls resemble us. Their round heads, large, front-facing eyes, curved beaks, which have a likeness to the human nose, and the facial disc, give them a human-like persona. In addition, owls have blocky little bodies with distinctly square shoulders. So, the resemblance to the human figure is inescapable.
Most of us have probably sauntered through woods in daylight hours, utterly unaware of the presence of roosting tawny owls for they can so easily melt into the background due to their heavily mottled plumage and their ability to freeze. Indeed, the hitherto unknown presence of a roosting owl in woodland is often given away by the racket created by other small birds noisily mobbing it. Such small woodland birds definitely regard owls as enemies to be harried. Thus, if a roosting owl is discovered, all sorts of birds may gang together and mob it so ferociously that its easiest option is simply to re-locate.
However, continuing the theme of anthropomorphism, it is perhaps the large, round eyes of tawny owls that most attract our attention and indeed which attribute these particular birds with a reputation for sagacity. Those eyes are dark brown and do seem particularly deep, further conveying the image of wisdom. However, that said, because they are so nocturnal, the fact is that not many people actually see owls frequently. Much more often they are likely to hear them. The familiar 'too-wit-too-woo' is, I suppose, a rather haunting sound and indeed may induce in the mind of the listener a suspicion of a presence of wandering spirits. However, the loud, screeching 'kee-wick' heard unexpectedly and close by on a dark night can, I'm sure, seem bloodcurdling and may well be a cause of hairs on the back of the neck suddenly prickling!
Tawny owls, essentially woodland birds, have nevertheless taken well to our towns and cities, especially to those that are especially green! Not only are they able to find suitable nesting sites in mature parkland or even garden trees but there are of course plenty of rodents present in the shape of mice and rats, to keep them busy, not to mention the likes of roosting sparrows. To many folks, the silent presence of an owl, its lightly coloured underparts caught in the glow of street lighting, can be a slightly unnerving sight.
Apart from their ability to see well in low lighting conditions, due to the excessive size of their eyes, tawny owls have another vital weapon in their armouries. A soft fringing of feathers on the edges of their wings means that they fly so silently that their victims literally do not hear an attacking owl coming. Wham, bam and you're dead! Add to that a remarkably well-tuned sense of hearing and a set of lethal talons and you have an exceptionally well armoured predator.
There are two quite distinct variations on a colour theme in the tawny owl population, known as the grey and brown phases. Tawnies are comfortably our commonest owls. Long-eared owls, even more nocturnal by nature, are also even more anonymous, generally favouring relatively isolated woodland in which to dwell, their voices low and some would say, moaning. On the other hand, short-eared owls are surprisingly perhaps, more active during daylight hours, usually favouring open moorland or coastal habitats where they hunt for voles. Their eyes are a piercing yellow. As recently said, their numbers here will soon be augmented by birds arriving from Scandinavia.
Sadly, what might be argued to be the most beautiful of our owls, the barn owl, is in quite serious decline due perhaps, to the destruction of suitable habitat as farming methods change. Its plumage is often conservatively described as buff and grey with white underparts. I much prefer to describe their lustrous plumage as gold and silver, offset by those starkly white underparts! With varying degrees of success, many organisations are trying their best to help a barn owl recovery by erecting nest boxes. There are few sights to match that of a hunting barn owl at dusk or dawn, as it floats ghoulishly through the gloaming ... all aglow!
There is one other British owl, the little owl, which is no bigger than a song thrush, was introduced to southern areas of Britain from Europe in the nineteenth century. Little owls have colonised much of England and in recent years have established themselves in southern Scotland too. A few years ago, I was awakened one autumn night by the calling of a little owl here but have not heard one since.
You might possibly hear owls - most likely tawny owls - during these autumnal nights. Fear not, they are just communicating with other owls!