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The Tawny Owl 

By Jeff R. Martin 

T. & A. D. Poyser, 2022 

304pp; multiple black-and-white maps, colour and black-and-white photographs

ISBN (pbk): 978-1-4729-8069-4; £35.00

ISBN (hbk): 978-1-4729-4356-9; £55.00

Given that the Tawny Owl Stix aluco is Europe’s most common owl, it is surprising that this is the first book to focus solely on the species. Those wanting information have, in the past, mostly turned to Owls of Europe by Heimo Mikkola (T. & A. D. Poyser, 1983) and the highly respected scientific papers by Mick Southern from the 1950s and 1960s and by Steve Petty, Steve Percival and Graham Hirons. Certainly, this species was deserving of its own book.  

The format of The Tawny Owl follows that of a typical Poyser monograph, first setting the scene for the species and its classification and physiology. Status and distribution of the different subspecies is discussed, with the author including mauritanica in this section, along with the suggestion that it should be split as ‘Witherby’s Owl’. This ignores the fact that all three of the global taxonomic authorities already recognise S. mauritanica as a species in its own right, Mahgreb Owl, and have done so since 2020.  

The next chapter discusses behavioural traits, which includes a focus on daytime calling, which the author feels is a new and growing trend. Is it? There is then a section on territory and species relationships. This includes discussion on possible interactions with Common Buzzards Buteo buteo and Northern Goshawks Accipiter gentilis. The author suspects that both species are causing declines in Tawny Owls. Certainly, a small number of owlets end up falling prey to Buzzards, but what data there is suggests this is insignificant. The more worrying impact on Tawny Owls could be from the growing British population of Pine Martens Martes martes, a species which has been shown to predate owls at much higher levels in Europe. This is referred to in a later chapter.

A section on senses assesses how well Tawny Owls are adapted for their nocturnal activities. Similarly, a chapter on flight, plumage and moult discusses plumage variation across the species’ range, amongst other topics. The section on feeding ecology is surprisingly short by comparison, given there is a wealth of recent scientific papers from many parts of Europe where studies have thrown up interesting regional and habitat-related variations. 

The chapter on nesting, fledging and dispersal is more substantial, bringing together many different aspects, particularly from British studies. One of these is the matter of sea crossings. Here, the author suggests that, despite evidence to the contrary, sea crossings may take place, as evidenced by 100 birds ringed at eight coastal bird observatories in Britain. Given that none of the 4,430 retraps of Tawny Owls recorded by the BTO related to overseas movements, I think any birds at observatories are likely to involve local movements – not least as all are from within a few miles of the ‘usual’ distribution of Tawny Owls.  

In the chapters that explore factors that influence numbers, the author concludes that Britain’s growth in urban development is a major driving force in causing declines that have been noted for several decades. This is certainly backed up by recent survey work by the BTO. However, his suggestion that cats are likely to be another significant factor by catching small mammals in gardens seems far-fetched. Other research has shown that urban Tawny Owls specialise more in catching small birds.  

There are also sections on conservation, folklore, superstitions and culture. There are some useful illustrations showing colour variations and a set of attractive sketches by John Davis. However, the book is visually lacking in some other areas. For example, the only map of the European range is a poor monochrome representation with no country borders marked. Given that both European Atlases are referred to in the text, it is a missed opportunity not to use their maps showing both distribution and change. Meanwhile, a fairly irrelevant map of British bird observatories is given a full page! 

In summary, this book lacks the succinct and authoritative nature that we have come to expect from the Poyser monographs, with much of what is stated being (in some cases controversial) personal opinion. The author is an acknowledged authority on Barn Owls Tyto alba, but that said, I fear that an opportunity has been missed here for an authoritative publication on the Tawny Owl.  

Keith Betton

Issue 5
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