Tawny Twits and Tawny Twoos

Ben Dolphin

Winter nights are rather quiet affairs, but I’d forgotten just how quiet they were until a familiar sound pierced one of them last week while I was out for a torchlit stroll.


It sailed through the chill night air, clear and sharp, from somewhere within the dark recesses of a granny pine. I stopped in my tracks and waited for a repeat, which duly came after 10 seconds or so.


I waited, listening for the familiar response. A short moment later a fainter, more distant sound, high pitched and squawky, called out.


Tawny owls.

The walls of my home are thin, and surrounded by trees, so it’s perfectly normal to be indoors of an evening and hear owl conversations reverberating around the exterior of the house. But when I heard these calls on my walk, I realised I’d not heard an owl for weeks.

The first call came again. Further away this time, but just as clear and sharp.

Huuuu….. Hu….huhuhuhuuuuuu.

Unseen and therefore, yes, a bit unworldly, these calls were oddly comforting on a dark night. Hearing tawny owls is always enjoyable, and I know I’m not alone in feeling that. In my experience as a ranger, most folk seem to love hearing owls calling from the dark. Kids especially, and I was certainly no exception when I was a kid with a fashionable bowl haircut.

Mum, can I have my own owl?! Pleeeeeeease!”

That’s because owls are enigmatic, capturing our imaginations in a way that most other birds, indeed most other animals, can’t. When we hear that sound outside, we know instantly that it is an owl.

It sticks in the mind because it doesn’t sound natural. I’ve always thought it sounds artificial and woody, like someone blowing a whistle in the percussion section of an orchestra. But ask anyone what noise an owl makes and they will probably tell you …..”twit twoo”. If you’re really lucky, they might even mimic the rise and fall of the call as they say those words. And if they do, in that brief moment you can see the sparkle of childhood in their eyes, because that’s when they first learned that basic truth. Very early on, we all learn that owls go twit twoo.

But do they?

Often, the first moment you’re aware there’s an owl nearby, is when you hear a confident whistling ‘Huuuu’. A single-syllabled hoot. Then there’s a pause for a few seconds, before you hear a shortened ‘huh’ (as though it’s clearing its throat), followed quickly by a stuttered ‘Huhuhuhuuuuuu”.

That’s the male tawny owl calling out. That’s the ‘twoo’ in the call. So where’s the ‘twit’?

‘Twit-twoo’ is a peculiar onomatopoeia, because while one might assume it refers to the call of an individual owl, it in fact refers to two calls, from two owls.

The high pitched, two-syllabled ‘twit’, or ‘kew-ICK’ as it’s also written, with the emphasis on the second syllable, is usually the female calling out. The second syllable is also sung a tad higher than the first, in a rising, almost questioning fashion. You might have heard the twit on its own many times before, but not realised it was made by an owl because it’s not a hoot.

Adult tawny owl returning with a meal for its chick

The male responds to the twit with the softer, quivering twoo. Or vice versa. Either way, both calls are repeated constantly, and this sounds like ‘twit twoo’ when heard in quick succession.

It’s a duet. A call and response between male and female. Both communicating with one another, but also letting other owls outwith their pairing know they’re there.

The distinctiveness of the tawny owl’s call is what makes it so appealing to us, but in being so distinctive it has inadvertently muted the voices of every other owl species out there. For ask most folk what noise a barn owl, or a short-eared owl make, and you’ll likely get the same response.

“Erm….twit twoo”

And why not? It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption to make. But we have more than one species of owl in Scotland, and while a few of them could, at a stretch, be described as uttering a hoot of sorts, only one could be described as twitting and twooing. The others couldn’t be more different.

Clearly absent when singing lessons were handed out, the beautiful barn owl’s voice will make your blood curdle. It screeches, clicks and hisses, but it doesn’t twit twoo. Its call goes right through me like nails on a blackboard, and genuinely does make my hairs stand on end. Sorry barn owl, you have moth-like beauty, you’re graceful and enchanting but…..gawd, that voice!

Barn Owl – looks beautiful but sounds horrific

Short eared owls emit all kinds of screeches and squawks, plus a rhythmic wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh, but they don’t twit twoo. As for the long-eared owl, well, I had to look that one up online to listen to its call, because I’ve never knowingly seen, much less heard one. I was surprised and delighted to find that one of its calls sounds like someone blowing sharply over the opening of a bottle, while another sounds like a kazoo being played in a deliberately comedic way. But no, it doesn’t twit twoo either.

That the tawny owl has become our stereotypical ‘go to’ owl isn’t surprising, given its profusion relative to other owl species. It is easily the most widespread and numerous of all our owls, and while its favoured habitat is woodland, they’re quite happy in the parks and gardens of our towns and cities.

They’re also extremely vocal at night. Their voices are loud and carry far, so we’re accustomed to hearing them. But like the other owl species, tawny owls have a broad repertoire of sounds, and we do them a disservice when we reduce them down to just one sound.

Not so long ago I was delighted to encounter a new noise I’d never heard before, and at first I wasn’t even sure it was an owl. It was a soft warbling sound, several seconds in duration, starting quietly and finishing louder. It was constantly repeating so that it was almost like a purr.

I later discovered it’s a courtship call by the male tawny owl. And to my delight last year, one of the local males routinely perched on our chimney and reliably warbled away every night, its relaxing sounds echoing down the flue. If I opened the log stove door, the sound would fill the whole living room. A bit surreal to be honest, but also quite lovely.

As summer wears on, you might also hear very high pitched, raspy squeaks calling out from the trees. That’s the youngsters begging for food, still dependent on their parents even after a few months.

Tawny owl chick in Beecraigs Country Park

In appearance, the tawny owl is a stunner. The word ‘tawny’ derives from an old Norman word tauné, used to describe the colour of tanned leather – a kind of yellow-brown, but plumage colour varies across their global range. In this country, tawny owls are various shades of mottled brown or grey, with a plainer facial disc and chest. The mottled plumage is astonishingly effective camouflage when set against its principal broadleaf woodland habitat of twigs and tree bark.

If you’re lucky to see a tawny owl perched, absolutely still, it genuinely looks as though it’s been carved out of wood. They are beautiful birds. You will, however, be hard pressed to see this with your own eyes. Partly because they are naturally shy and retiring creatures, and tend to keep out of sight. But also because if you do see them, it tends not to be in good light.

Most of my sightings tend to be only fleeting glimpses at the very edge of my headlamp beam as I drove home from work. There’s one owl who sits on a pine branch above my road of an evening, and I occasionally catch sight of it as I pass below, the light from my car uplighting the owl in ghostly fashion. It stares down at me with those big black eyes. But they’re generally rather flighty at night, and don’t remain still long enough for me to get a good look.

The tawny owl’s elusiveness, visually, perhaps goes some way to explaining why we’re so fascinated by its sound. In most cases, the sound is all we have. But I’ve nonetheless been lucky to have a few broad daylight sightings, such as one morning in Fife when I was daydreaming out the kitchen window. Quite by chance, a tawny owl landed on the fence post I was staring at. I was mesmerised as it stared at the ground, presumably at a vole, and swivelled its head about

But in daylight I’ve generally had better luck spotting their chicks, or ‘owlets’ (which is such a lovely word!). Tawny owl chicks become very mobile after just a few weeks, and will eagerly explore the immediate environment outside the nest. This is called ‘branching’.

This eagerness means they sometimes reach the ground, and therefore have a habit of appearing in places you least expect. We had a tawny owl family nesting in the chimney at Mar Lodge Stables last summer, and we kept finding a chick in the courtyard, sitting next to the office doors.

Can I come in?” Tawny chick outside the office at Mar Lodge | Photo: big thanks to Jennifer Pirie

They’re peculiar things – fluffballs with big black eyes, they barely move but look right through you. The temptation in these instances to interfere, to ‘rescue’, is strong, but here the differences between owl species are again laid bare. For while a barn owl chick on the ground signifies that something has gone very wrong (the parents will likely ignore it if it’s not in the nest, and the chick probably won’t survive), a tawny owl chick on the ground is quite normal. They’re adept at climbing back up to safety, and unlike barn owls, tawny owl parents will feed their chick wherever it ends up.

My best tawny owl encounter, however, was at Polkemmet Country Park, back in my West Lothian ranger days. We used to run ‘Creatures of the Night’ walks in the autumn evenings, where we’d walk around the woods with torches, looking and listening for signs of nocturnal creatures.

Families absolutely loved it, mainly because it was a novelty to be out and about in woodlands in the dark. We had bat detectors to listen for bats, which always showed up, but even if it was just toads crawling about, there was always SOMETHING for us to show people.

But on one particular walk at Polkemmet, on a particularly wet evening, the wildlife was so elusive that the best I could offer was a solitary moth in a torch beam, and a slug on the car park tarmac. And to think people had paid £3.80 for this!

My emergency backup was a portable speaker, through which we could play nocturnal animal calls to demonstrate sounds in their night time context. Desperate by this point, I played the tawny owl ‘twoo’ out loud a few times, then the ‘twit, explaining to people about the call and response. I didn’t expect an owl to reply necessarily, and indeed none did, but instead a tawny owl suddenly and silently glided over our heads, briefly caught in the bright glow of a lamp post, and promptly perched on an adjacent tree. It caught all of us, me included, off guard and made everyone’s evening. Happily it also spared me the embarrassment of 1 Star Trip Advisor reviews for my Polkemmet Slug Walk. But the thrill for the public came precisely because tawny owl sightings are so rare for most people to have.

Everyone was amazed too, how the owl hadn’t made a sound as it passed overhead. And when you consider that the biggest adults have a wingspan approaching 1 metre, that makes the feat all the more impressive, because there are a lot of feathers there to rustle and flutter.

It is of course something that owls are supremely adapted for. Their wing feathers are softer than other birds’ feathers, which helps to dampen the sound of air passing over the wing. But then the leading edges of the wing feathers are lined with tiny barbs, and the trailing edges are fringed, like tiny tassles. Look at most bird feathers and they end in a hard edge, but the barbs and fringes on owl feathers reduce turbulence and render the owl silent in flight.

I always assumed this was so that their prey couldn’t hear them coming. But it’s likely also because any noise off the wings could interfere with their very sensitive hearing, which they rely upon to hunt more so than their eyes.

Their eyesight in low light conditions is still excellent though and, unlike our eyes, which are spherical in shape and can rotate in their sockets, a tawny owl’s eyes are elongated and are fixed facing forwards. This gives the owl binocular vision for hunting, but it also means it must move its head in order to move its eyes. Hence the owl’s mechanical head being able to turn through a neck-twisting 270 degrees.

Daydreaming in Fife….and then it just appeared from nowhere!

Unlike barn owls and short eared owls, which can typically be seen actively flying low over fields, scanning for prey as they go and then literally falling out the sky towards their prey on the ground, tawny owls are more passive in their hunting. They perch and watch, diving to the ground when they spot or hear a meal below them. Mice and voles mainly. But also amphibians, other birds, invertebrates, which they will secure with their long, sharp talons.

This time of year, my local tawny owls are relatively quiet, even though It’s fast approaching mating season. It’s a far cry from the autumn, when the youngsters were dispersing and searching for their own territories, ready to mate and breed in their second year. Interestingly, tawny owls pair for life and don’t move far, so existing territories are closely guarded.

Autumn is therefore when twitting and twooing can echo around the woods from every direction. On one glorious night last October I stepped out the front door and heard one tawny owl twooing to my left, another twitting somewhere out front, two twooing far away to the right, and a few doing the same somewhere far off behind the house.

Given this apparent abundance, I was surprised to read that tawny owls are actually on the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern, having been added in 2015 on account of a long-term population decline in the UK. A good example of how our perception of the health of a species can be highly subjective where it is informed solely by the profusion of birds locally.

I therefore remain thankful to live somewhere that’s blessed with what appears to be an abundant population of tawny owls. But abundant or not, last week’s brief encounter brought life and sound back into my winter nights, and happily reminded me of what I’ve been missing.

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