Owls have more associations for us than perhaps any other family of birds, suggested Jeremy Mynott in Birdscapes, so it is puzzling that it has taken Collins 70 years to add this ‘Natural History of the British and Irish Species’ to its famous New Naturalist Series.
It is of course primarily a zoological work, with statistics, charts and sentences such as: ‘A real breakthrough in resolving this problem has been the advent of affordable molecular and biochemical methods.’ But the science, if sometimes beyond the simple owl-lover, reveals plenty of fascinating facts.
The five principal species found in Britain are tawny, barn, little, long-eared and short-eared. The tawny is easily the most abundant, at possibly 20,000 breeding pairs. It is the one we hear, the male calling ‘toowit-towoo’ and the female ‘keewik’. It lives in towns as well as the countryside, but appears to hate crossing the sea because, unlike the barn, it is unknown in Ireland. It has also avoided the Isle of Wight, Arran and the more obvious far-flung isles but, strangely, not the Isle of Man.
Christopher Hassall described owls as ‘cats in feathers’. The barn, the ugliest chick and most beautiful adult, makes a particularly cat-like pet, even purring with contentment when stroked. It is reckoned there are about 4,000 breeding pairs. Like all the owls it is in decline because of human overpopulation; but the Barn Owl Trust has proved that providing nest-boxes and cover to raise the field vole population can work wonders. Today there are as many barn owls in Suffolk as there were 50 years ago.
The little owl is almost entirely confined to England. It was introduced from Europe by an owl enthusiast in the 19th century and there are now perhaps 8,000 breeding pairs. It is the most diurnal and easily seen of the three commonest owls. The long-eared and short-eared are the least familiar: one is a woodland species, like the tawny, but prefers dense conifer plantations; the other, scourge of the red grouse, is an upland bird.
General readers will welcome chapter six, ‘Owls and Humans’. Owls have played a cultural part throughout the world and from the dawn of recorded time. The bird’s reputation for wisdom owes much to the little owl, symbol of the ‘bright-eyed’ Greek goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus. The association is perpetuated in its scientific name, Athene noctua. In England in modern times the tawny has usurped the role of wise owl, as exemplified by ‘Old Brown’ in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin or Wol in Winnie the Pooh.
The ghostly barn owl may be most responsible for the association of owls with death; and witchery and magic are no less inseparable from creatures of mystery and the night. Horace includes owl’s feathers among the ingredients for a magic charm
Et uncta turpis ove ranae sanguine
Plumamque nocturna strigis
(lines Mike Toms stylishly leaves untranslated) and ‘howlet’s wing’ is in the witches’ brew in Macbeth. The references could be endless.
What one misses is a jolly owl story or two, of the sort told by the late Henry Douglas-Home, a pioneer of bird broadcasting for the BBC, in his ornithological memoir The Birdman (also Collins). For example, the time his brother William, the playwright, an incorrigible practical joker, made a barrage of owl hoots into one of his brother’s far off and carefully placed microphones during a live outside broadcast. Henry was furious when he was eventually told, but by then it was too late. The recording was thought so outstanding it had been adopted as a general background sound effect,
so for years whenever BBC Drama sent Juliet out on her balcony or Frankenstein up to his laboratory they would be accompanied, for those few of us who knew, by the distant sound of William hooting.
Toms has a few irritating stylistic traits. All measurements are metric and all dates, where possible, de-Christianised. He also refers to the ‘persecution’ of owls (by gamekeepers, etc). A victim requires a belief to be persecuted. Enough. This is a long overdue and worthy addition to a classic series.