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Owling in Páramo


Now that we’re into April, this breeding season’s owling is well into its swing. Owling is the name our group gives to the activity of putting up nest boxes and monitoring them for these magnificent birds. In the UK, Barn Owls, Little Owls and Tawny Owls breed inside pre-existing cavities, such as tree hollows and outbuildings, but all will breed in nest boxes. Short-eared Owls are ground nesters and Long-eared Owls prefer to breed in old Magpie and Crow nests.

I started owling in 2006 and have been hooked ever since. I get immense joy seeing owls up close, but am predominantly driven by a desire to provide additional nest sites for them, to ring any chicks, and to contribute to the BTO’s nest record scheme. Whilst ideally we’d like all owls to breed in natural cavities, research has shown that a shortage of suitable nest sites can limit owl numbers. Furthermore, at some sites, especially in modern farm buildings, nest boxes can provide a more secure nest site compared with semi-exposed sites without vegetation.

Female Little Owl with eggs inside a nest box

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Tawny Owls usually start egg laying around the third week in March, and often earlier if the late winter weather is mild. Tawnies are vocal at this point and you can occasionally hear them in daytime. Next, it’s Little Owls, which usually start laying mid-April, followed by Barn Owls, which usually start laying early May. Laying dates will vary with weather and prey availability.

Juvenile Little Owl in a nest box by Emily Joachim

Our group carries out work in winter too, including box repairs, removal of deep nest material, which can be up to six inches in a Barn Owl box, plus we replace or put up new nest boxes. This work takes place in all weather conditions ‒ it can get surprisingly chilly on the open chalk plateau of Salisbury Plain. I’ve worn my Torres insulating trousers for the past six years and they’re brilliant for keeping me warm, dry and protected from the wind. I’ve been wearing the women’s Torres Medio Jacket for past 12 months and it’s now my favourite jacket. It’s super lightweight, warm and I really like the purple colour! I wear it in both the countryside and city too.

After a relatively mild winter 2016/17, our group are anticipating an early start to egg laying. The past two breeding seasons have been poorer than average, so we’re crossing all fingers that female Barn Owls, Little Owls and Tawny Owls will be able to reach their breeding weight this spring. A third of Barn Owls didn’t in 2016, and clutch sizes were small in all owl species. I will provide you with a 2017 breeding season update for Wiltshire later on this year.

Nigel Lewis and Emily Joachim ringing Barn Owls by Richard Clayton

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After many requests for Little Owl box designs, I’ve written this guide on how to make, put up and monitor Little Owl boxes. Please get in touch with me if you’d like advice on Little Owls!

UK Little Owl survey
Can you help? The UK Little Owl Project is really keen to hear what you think about our Little Owls (good or bad!) for a new project on the public’s perception of this non-native owl. The survey only takes a couple of minutes. We’d love for you to have your say – click here to complete it.

Dr Emily Joáchim, UK Little Owl Project
Andy Rouse Wildlife Photography and Páramo have contributed over several years to the work of the UK Little Owl Project via their joint Aspira Fund.

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