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The barn owl at the wooded end of our garden is hooting for much of the night. Why does it do this as surely it alerts prey to its presence?

Sent in by Graham Scott, Fife

The owl associated with hooting is in fact the tawny owl. The barn owl's best known call is a long, eerie shriek and in many areas it is known as the screech owl.

Tawny owls have the traditional owl-type call of 'to-wit-too-woo' and are real woodland birds, but can be found in churchyards, cities and, as you are well aware, large gardens. They are widespread throughout the UK although absent from the Scottish Highlands and Islands and from Ireland.

One fascinating thing about the hooting call of the tawny owl, described above, is that it is made by two birds. The first 'to-wit' is the female's call followed immediately by the 'to-woo' of the male. This is their contact call and the male has a short hoot to advertise territory. They regularly call to keep in contact with one another and to mark the boundaries of their territories.

Tawny owls favourite foods are mice and voles. In this, they are similar to the barn owl, but they will take a variety of other items from earthworms to small birds. When they are hunting though, they sit perfectly still on a perch and silently wait, sometimes for long periods.

They are perfectly adapted to take their prey by surprise as their plumage is thick and very soft with loose edges to the feathers allowing silent flight. Thick plumage must also be very beneficial during long winter nights when they sit immobile.

They need to eat small meals regularly, but when food is plentiful, they will store the surplus for later use. It is easy to discover what an owl has had for its supper as the indigested parts, such as bones, fur and feathers are coughed up as a pellet.

Tawny owls usually nest in hollows in trees, but, like the barn owl, they frequently use nestboxes which are a real bonus to them when natural nest sites are scarce.

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