We knew they were there, because we’d heard them. But we didn’t know exactly where. They kept themselves well concealed, only moving about at night, until we stumbled upon their secret hiding place.
Who or what are they? Owls. A pair of long-eared owls (moyen duc in French; scientific name: Asio otus), which have chosen to roost in an ivy-covered tree in our garden.
I have always been very fond of owls. Hearing their eerie calls while sitting by the fire on a winter’s night is, for me, an evocative pleasure of living in the countryside. The area around us is wooded and dotted with old barns and abandoned houses, where owls can nest and breed virtually undisturbed. Barn owls regularly take up residence in our own barn.
For several weeks, we have heard the moyen duc’s breathy, regular hooting at night. It is apparently the male that calls. Well, it seems to have done the trick, because there are two of them. I presume they are a breeding pair.
The SF (statistics-obsessed husband) scared them out of their roost one day by walking past. The next day, I went to investigate. I crept up as quietly as possible. The evidence was there: white droppings on the ivy leaves. I looked straight upwards from there and eyeing me was a rather startled-looking face with orange eyes and black ear-tufts (actually they aren’t ears, but they are called that anyway). If only I’d had my camera!
This second unwarranted intrusion into their roost was as intolerable as the first. The owl burst out of the ivy and glided away on silent wings. A few seconds later, the second one exited the other side of the tree and flew off to join its mate. They must roost facing each other since, each time, one flies out of the front and the other out of the back of the tree. Unless this is a kind of defensive tactic to confuse the enemy.
I tried again today, this time with the camera, but they were too quick for me. So I can only show you a Wikimedia photo of one, above. I snapped some owl pellets beneath the tree, composed of the undigested bits of prey. There were quite a lot of them, so the tree had clearly been occupied for some time.
I don’t want to frighten the owls off for good. They have had enough disturbances already, since Philippe decided yesterday to brush-cut his field edges on the other side of the hedgerow from their roost. Once again, they had to escape.
Moyen ducs live here all year round. In the winter, they sometimes roost in groups. They then breed between February and July, often nesting in the discarded nest of a crow or magpie. They lay clutches of four to six eggs.
These owls are about 35-37 cm in height with a wingspan of almost a metre. They look taller because of the “ears”, which they raise when alarmed. Their function is to make the owl look bigger than it is. The female is larger and darker in colour than the male.
We have come across these wonderful birds before. Once, unfortunately, we found a dead one that had caught its foot in a split bramble. On another occasion, we saw two fledglings sitting back to back in a tree calling their parents, which were still feeding them. One saw us and shut up. The other was oblivious to our presence and continued to signal its position.
When so many species are under threat, it’s good to see that these owls are classified as of Least Concern in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s scheme.
What owl species live around you? Do you have owl tales to tell?
Finally, I have been able to snap one of our moyen ducs, but only its back view as it flew away!
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