Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Owls playing chicken

Features editor Matt Merritt writes:

Last night, I was driving home from Nottingham, at about 11.30pm. It was rainy and windy, and I’d got about two miles from home, on a straight, downhill stretch, when I saw a Tawny Owl standing upright at the side of the road.

I slowed right down and managed to avoid it, and pulled to a halt a little way further on, hazard warning lights blazing, before going back with a torch. To my surprise, it was still there, and didn’t fly away even when I got to within almost touching distance.

Now I was worried. I assumed it must be injured, so I started trying to work out ways to pick it up without hurting it, and without suffering severe injury myself (the wildlife photographer Eric Hosking famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl). Quite where I’d have taken it, I’m not sure, there not being any all-night owl surgeries in the vicinity. I went back to the car, found a padded photographer’s case to put it in, donned gloves, and prepared for the difficult part.

It had gone, thankfully. I had a good look around the area on foot, drove back up and down three or four times, but it had clearly flown away rather than just hopping into the ditch.

Thing is, this is the third time something like this has happened to me. The first, 10 years ago, was on a similarly lonely stretch of road near Bourne, Lincolnshire, where I was living at the time. That time it was a Long-eared Owl, which was stood in the centre of the road, stock still. I only saw it late and was terrified that I’d hit it, but when I got out to walk back, it watched me part of the way, then flew easily away.

Just a couple of months after that, the same thing happened with another Long-eared Owl (odd because I don’t know of any breeding locally) just about a mile from where I saw last night’s bird.

So, I’m baffled. Roads must be great places to catch voles, etc, as they emerge from cover, but I can only assume the owls get rather dazzled by headlights and are unable to fly away from approaching cars. I’m trying to get an owl expert to explain more, but has anyone out there had a similar experience?


Alan Tilmouth said...

I remember reading that owls are not the most intelligent of birds despite the 'wise old owl' image. Certainly would help to explain the prevalence of road casualties.

Anonymous said...

That it was wet might have been a clue. Birds tend to avoid long veg when it's been raining, as their plumage gets soaked. You often see Pheasants stood on the road after rain, rathe than hide in the wet verge vegetation. The owls might have been looking for mammals or insects coming into the open.

Daryl Griffiths said...

Yes, a few weeks ago. Again at night.

The bird was pretty much in the middle of the road on a back road in West Suffolk/East Cambs, sitting/standing on some road-kill.

As I recall, it was probably a tawny and sat there until I got pretty close in the car, by which time I had slowed right down.

I was close to stopping when it flew off, with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders(!)

I live in a rural area and do see quite a few owls around here at night, but this one was rather memorable as it was sat in the road. I will often see them perched on signposts (they do prefer the wooden ones it seems), but they tend to fly off once you get reasonably close. Although ocassionally I have pretty much drawn up to them before they fly off. I have had other encounters with them sat on the roads at night hereabouts too.

About 3 years ago, I moved from an area about 20 miles away (still a rural area) and had owl encounters at night, but not with the same regularity or at the same range.

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks for your responses...

I'm sure you're right about their intelligence, Alan, and I think their eyesight is also not as good as was popularly supposed - they use their hearing far more - so perhaps they are easily dazzled.

I feel sure the rain had some effect - it hadn't been enough to waterlog its feathers, but as you say, it would deter it from sitting in the grass.

Anonymous said...

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Nigel Blake said...

This is quite common, Tawny Owls tend to hunt for earthworms that have come up out of waterlogged ground when the weather is wet, they will also take migrating toads.
Owls have a tendency to "freeze" when you shine a bright light on them as well, which is quite useful when photographing them.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall that Eric Hosking lost his eye whilst photographing at a Barn Owl nest, not a Tawny! Incidentally, Little Owls (completely different family) are extremely passive when handled - when I gingerly extracted my first one from a mist net I thought it was dead, it didn't move a muscle, including it's talons!

On intelligence, I am told by farmers that young barn owl are not too clever. They frequently fall into cattle troughs and drown, and some farmers have devised a protective cover to try to stop them doing this! I have also known of one fly into a small win generator, but I don't know how widespread a problem that is.

Mike Weedon said...

No, it was definitely a Tawny that got him. Very interesting what you say about Little Owls, too - maybe this is one of the reasons why they were commonly kept as pets.