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The best nest box to attract a tawny owl to your garden
Each year tawny owls in my garden nest in boxes built especially for them. Over the years I’ve learned what sort of box suits the species best and where to site it.
Tawny owls begin courting in winter
As I step out of my back door here is a hard frost underfoot. Above the stars twinkle and, in spite of the cold, I can hear the call of a male tawny owl. I know it is a male by the sound of its soft, pulsing hoot.
This refrain is a familiar sound in my garden in winter. It indicates the beginning of this species’ courtship process. Soon after the start of the New Year, the calls get more frequent.
A tawny owl’s love call sounds like an ocarina.
The male tawny owl hoot as it tries to attract a mate is very distinct. Often compared to an ocarina, an ancient wind musical instrument notable for its pure ethereal tone, it is a soft, reverberating sound.
Listen to it here:
Tawny owls mate for life
Even though the male is calling for a mate, he as actually already won her. Via my live nest box cameras I have seen the pair tight up together inside the box.
They wake occasionally to tenderly preen each other’s facial discs. I’ve even noticed them take it in turns to scrape a hollow dip into the debris on the floor of the box for the eggs that are due in mid-March.
These two have actually been a pair for years. And yet, in spite of the longevity of their relationship, they go through this affectionate courtship ritual every year in order to reaffirm their bond.
I have watched them for several years now. At the beginning of each breeding season I look forward to the moment when they find a suitable nest. Tawnys are the first birds of prey in my garden to lay, and subsequently, the first to hatch.
You can follow their story on my Tawny Owl Cam where I share the best of my footage from the cameras inside their nest box.
Tawny owls fuss over their choice of nest
Each year there is a familiar build-up of tension as the male picks out an appropriate box and calls the female in to inspect it. There is always the chance that she won’t approve! This happened last year and the pair eventually nested elsewhere in the valley where I wasn’t able to follow their lives on camera.
The male tawny owl is rarely satisfied by his first inspection. He regularly selects least two other nest boxes every year to try them for size. Each time he invites the female – using his ocarina-hoot – in to each for her assessment.
Tawny owls are territorial
This can be an edgy time here Fotherdale. The kestrels and barn owls are also looking for suitable sites and the male tawny must keep them out of each box whilst he and his partner make their final selection.
Vicious fights often ensue. Below my cameras captured one of these dramatic territorial battles:
My tawny owl nests are wired with cameras and microphones
I fit cameras and microphones inside my owl boxes so that I can follow the intimate lives of these owls from screens in my studio and gallery. You can also see the best footage I get on my Tawny Owl Cam which follows the owls throughout the breeding year.
Why you should put up a tawny owl nest box
Over the years, I have put up nearly 200 nest boxes for owls and kestrels and I have found some box designs to be more successful than others.
Where to site a tawny owl nest box
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. Consequently their nest boxes need to be sited in a coppice or wood in a deciduous tree.
People often make the mistake of putting owl boxes up where they can get a good view of the nest box and the owl. Unfortunately, being looked at is the last thing that an owl wants.
To ensure breeding success, tawny owls also 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. These youngsters explore the world outside their nests by hopping along the branches long before they can fly. This behaviour is known as ‘branching’.
Ideally a tawny owl box also needs 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.
What size should a tawny owl nest box be
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 too small for the male and female to sit together in early spring for their courtship and later egg-laying.
Often there is also not enough space for the adults to feed their chicks. And I’ve noticed the lack of space means they often land too forcefully onto their eggs or chicks – sometimes damaging their tails in the process.
There also isn’t enough space in there for fledgling owls to flap their wings. This is important for them when it is time to climb out.
There are some tube-shaped boxes on the market. These open at the top and are designed to be strapped under a leaning branch. But these also present problems for tawny owls since they are such early nesters 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.
Tawny owls don’t always use the nest box you offer them
Even though these commercial boxes are designed with tawny owls in mind, I have found that the birds don’t always go into their designated boxes.
In my garden the owls often choose to nest in boxes designed for kestrels, but here the problem is that their chicks fledge too early as this box-design is easy for them to get out of.
It is important that a tawny owl nest box is tall, so that the chicks cannot climb out before they are ready to fledge. Tawny owl chicks are notoriously adventurous and you often have accidents. Click here to read about the time two tawny chicks fledged just before a downpour and were unable to fly back to safety.
I have designed my own tawny owl boxes. My boxes have a base that is at least 30x 35cm which is far more spacious for the family as they grow.
I like to use old tree stumps for my nest boxes. These offer the owls a natural hole to nest in and gives me an attractive prop for my paintings and photographs.
Line your tawny owl nest box with wood chippings
I recommend putting two inches of wood chippings into the bottom of a tawny nest box. Tawny owls do not collect nesting material. They make a nest scrape in the debris that they find at the bottom.
Watch out for pests invading your nest box
Other species, such as jackdaws and grey squirrels often colonise owl nest boxes and this can be a real problem as it deters the owls you are trying to attract. Watch the clip below to see this squirrel determined to nest in an owl’s box!
There is no simple solution to this problem; you just have to clear out the nest box of the bits of twigs that the jackdaws and squirrels put in each year. That is until you get a resident owl, at which point the owl will chase these intruders away itself – hopefully!
This can be tedious, but it is worth the effort for the bright winter’s night when you walk out into the garden and hear the comforting ocarina call of a courting tawny owl!
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