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How to get a tawny owl to nest in your garden

Over the years, I have put up nearly 200 nest boxes for owls and kestrels and I have found some designs to be more successful than others. Attracting a tawny owl into a nest box depends on a few factors: the availability of natural nest sites in your area and the available habitat and prey.Tawny owls live in wooded or partially wooded areas; you even get them in large gardens and parks in towns and cities. They need to be sited in a coppice or wood in a deciduous tree. People often make the mistake of siting owl boxes where they can get a good view of the nest box and the owl; instead of thinking about what the owl needs. Unfortunately, being looked at is the last thing that an owl wants. To ensure breeding success tawny owls need to feel safe. They are much more susceptible to disturbance around their nest site than barn owls. Their nests should be out of prevailing winds, so face yours south east. It needs to be at least three metres off the ground with branches nearby for fledgling chicks. Ideally they also need to out of full sun, although most of the year this isn’t too much of a worry since tawny chicks have often fledged before the weather gets too warm. And the box needs to be sheltered to avoid being exposed to heavy rain.

I’ve noticed that designs of commercial tawny owl boxes, or boxes suggested by charities, offer too small a nesting space . These are usually just 25cm square at the base. Although tawny owls prefer a smaller nesting cavity than barn owls, the spaces inside most boxes on the market are usually so small there isn’t enough space for fledgling owls to flap their wings inside. This is important so they are able to climb out when it comes to fledging time. These boxes are usually designed with the nest cavity located at the bottom of a tall box and I don’t think the tawny owls can get in and out of these nests without landing too forcefully onto their eggs or chicks and adults often damage their tails. There is also not enough space for them to feed their chicks. And there is not enough space for the male and female to sit together in the nest box during early spring for courtship and later egg laying.

Tawny Owl on Lookout, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller
Watchful Tawny Owl, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller

Tube-shaped boxes that open at the top are designed to be strapped under a leaning branch, but these also present problems for tawny owls because tawnys are early nesters and the open top means they get drenched by heavy spring showers and young chicks can perish. Also, if they get too wet, the bottoms of these boxes don’t last and often rot. Even though boxes are specially designed with specific species in mind, I have found that the birds don’t always go into their designated boxes. In my garden the owls will often prefer to nest in boxes designed for kestrels, but here the problem is that the chicks can often fledge too early as this box-design is easy for them to get out of.

As a result of my findings, I have designed my own tawny owl boxes. I ensure that the bases are a minimum of 30x 35cm. I recommend putting two inches of wood chippings into the bottom of the nest box. Tawny owls do not collect nesting material. They make a nest scrape in the debris that they find at the bottom.

Other species, such as jackdaws and grey squirrels often colonise owl nest boxes. Grey squirrels are not native and are a pest. There is no simple solution to this problem; you just have to clear out the nest box of material put in by jackdaws and squirrels each year until you have a resident owl, who will then chase these other species away itself – hopefully!

Recently I decided not to clear a nest box after a grey squirrel began building its drey inside. I wanted to see what would happen and watched via my nest cams as a silent battle between a tawny owl that was roosting there each day and the grey squirrel developed. The tawny would trample down the squirrel’s nesting material each day, and each night the squirrel would return to find the owl had been. Then one day the squirrel came back in the day and found the tawny inside. Watch the clip above to see how this fiesty squirrel dealt with the owl. You can see this no-nonsense grey literally head-butt the owl, knocking it right out of the box – a daring move considering tawnys can be very aggressive birds. I am an artist and so its important to me to get the setting right for my studies. Consequently I often make my boxes from gnarled old tree stumps that look attractive in my paintings, but I use the same principle inside for these as I do for the boxes shown above. Follow the link below to read my blog post on how I make these natural-looking boxes here:

A tree of life: find out how the trees in my paintings are so much more than props for birds to sit on

Want to attract a wider variety of birds to your garden? Take a look at my blog post on how to choose the right one for the right species and where to put it;

How to choose the right nest box for the birds in your garden and where to put it

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8 comments on How to get a tawny owl to nest in your garden

  1. Fascinating Robert, and a nice touch to publish on Valentines! I retire in April and plan on installing a box in the garden, but do not hold out too much hope – we hear owls occasionally but live close to Ashtead Common in Surrey which is an ideal environment of very old oak woodland, so why should they venture further. I saw what I think was a tawney there once in 10 plus years of dog walking! They really are magical creatures.

    All the very best. John

  2. HELLO I LIVE BY ORGANIC FARM LAND AND THE OWNER SAID I CAN PUT OWL BOXES TAWNY & BARN OWL THERE IS GOOD WOOD LAND CAN YOU PLEASE SEND ME YOUR DESIGN SIZES ALL SO KESTREL IT IS MY HOBBY NOW,POST CODE MK17 9BD TO LOOK AT AREA, MY GRAND FARTHER WAS O.G.PIKE

  3. Thank you for the good advice.
    I live in France and have Tawny Owls nearby and want to give them additional nesting sites because too many people cut down old trees.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. I was intrigued by the statement that the box plans posted elsewhere are only 25 cm square at the base. That would make each side only about 5 cm. Did you mean that they side of the base is only 25 cm? In any case I would love to know the rest of the dimensions of your design. Any chance you could post a rough plan?

    Thank you for the post!

  5. Hi Robert. I came across your blog looking for instances of interlopers in tawny owl nest boxes. I have a successful box in my garden. It’s an old tea chest and has been used to raise owlets every year since put up in 2010. It’s fitted with a camera and I’ve seen many a tussle between owl and squirrel. This year the pigeons got there first and laid an egg. Mrs owl turned up the same day and evicted them. She’s now incubating both a pigeon egg and the first of her own clutch !!! I wonder if anyone has seen such an occurrence before ?

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