An Owl Evening at the HGA

Photo:Hadleigh Old Fire Station

Hadleigh Old Fire Station

Keith Cole / HGA

Photo:Jack lets Snowy Owl (beautiful plumage) seem to perch on a gardener's head

Jack lets Snowy Owl (beautiful plumage) seem to perch on a gardener's head

M Brown

Photo:Keith demonstrates where to phone the owls

Keith demonstrates where to phone the owls

M Brown

19th July 2012

Jack and Keith told us about some of the world's 190 species of owl, a dozen of which they had brought along from their extensive captive collection. Keith allowed a ten-year old captive-bred Barn Owl (Tyto Alba) to rest on his leather glove and told us they actually do prefer to live in barns. Their asymmetrically-located ears help them to locate prey to within 1 sq inch (6.5 sq cm) and that,  in the wild, they survive perhaps three years hunting across a five mile territory.   Next was a Tawny or Brown Owl (Strix aluco.) They are nocturnal, with vision three times as acute as ours but again hunt by sound.  They prey on mice, voles, shrews... even weasels. The speakers recommended putting a branch into horse troughs as owls enjoy bathing but may struggle to exit a horse trough without a perch. Owls are very energy-conscious and will not lay eggs if there are insufficient prey to feed the chicks. The amazing head rotation of 270º is enabled by having 14 vertebrae where we have seven.

There are six species of owl in the UK; Barn, Tawny, Little, Snowy, Short-eared and Long-eared.  The Little Owl (Athene noctua) is the smallest in the UK; imported in the C19th by Baron Lilford, it now numbers in the thousands.   A Snowy Owl, (Bubo scandiacus) is able to live down to -40ºC, on account of its dense plumage. A seven-year old (pictured) was lifted from near its perch, demonstrating complete confidence in being handled by Jack. They catch Arctic hares, fox cubs, even Snow Geese taken whilst flying. In years when the lemming population surges, a female Snowy Owl will lay up to 12 eggs, sustained by the pure-white male hunting 24/7 in continuous daylight. It is considered a British native because they nest on Fetlar, in the Shetlands. In (very) cold winters, they will come as far south as Northumberland.  Next was a five-year old female Long-eared Owl (Asio otus.) The real ears are, as with all owls, covered with the facial disk of feathers, but there are ear-tufts, which originally were assumed to be ears. It is the only owl that will migrate to search for more food.

After the tea break, Keith briefed us on the intricacies of keeping owls in Britain. Each owl must have an Article 10 licence to prove they are from a captive breeding programme. It appears that DEFRA no longer allow the release of captive owls into the wild, on pain of fines or imprisonment.   Next was an Indian Eagle Owl (Bubo bengalensis) whose wild cousins range widely over Tibet and India eating palm rats, scorpions, and the wild equivalent of chicken.   

Last to be displayed was the magnificent European Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) which can live 25 years in captivity. Weighing about 8.5 lbs (3.9 Kg) with a wing span of around six feet, it catches rabbits, foxes – even muntjac deer. Wild pairs now nest in the Kielder Forest and Lincolnshire. Keith demonstrated how silently she could fly from the back of the room back to her perch, her wing feathers just brushing the heads of some of the gardeners.   All the owls (and Jack and Keith) received enthusiastic applause!

This page was added by Nick Turner on 28/10/2012.
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