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Part 24 - The Tawny Owl and the Magpie

Tawny owl – Strix aluco

The tawny or brown owl is the one that “kewicks” and hoots. These diagnostic cries can be heard at any time of the year and not just at night – even though, of the various owl species likely to be encountered in Kingston, this is the most nocturnal. Tawny owls can call in the evening, later afternoon or even, very occasionally, earlier still. My guess is that at least one pair breeds in Kingston in most years. You may well have heard them in the last couple of months (I certainly have as they woke me up at around 3-30 one morning!) because in August and early September, those young birds who have survived to adulthood are very vocal indeed, trying to attract the interest of a potential partner. They are predominantly woodland birds but can live in towns provided there is somewhere to nest – if no suitable hole is available then a disused squirrel’s drey, crow’s nest or artificial box will do – and provided also that there is something to eat. As they are not fussy eaters, most urban situations with parks or even large gardens are perfectly habitable. I’ve heard owls in Hyde Park and pairs have nested in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Tawny owls will take a very wide range of prey, from small mammals to frogs, worms and even fish. Birds – including smaller owls - can be eaten too. Most of the mammal diet consists of voles and mice but it can include rabbits and even bats.

These owls defend their nests very fiercely and in 1938 one, infamously, attacked Eric Hosking, later to achieve world fame as a bird photographer, when he was retrieving equipment from a hide in pitch darkness. Despite this, the owl’s aim was spot on and its claw left a terrible wound. The title of Hosking’s autobiography could not have been more appropriate. An Eye for a Bird was figurative but horribly literal too, the removal of one eye being the price he had to pay for retaining sight in the other.

Magpie – Pica pica

The remains of magpie chicks have been recorded from the nests of tawny owls and carrion crows are responsible for the failure of many magpie nests. Everything, it seems, eats everything else. Magpies themselves are of course notorious robbers of eggs and young birds (though they actually live mainly on invertebrates when breeding – as well as, helpfully, eating carrion) and, for this reason alone, deeply unpopular among many people who like birds in general. Predators must predate - or die themselves - and to harbour hatred towards any species for behaving in the manner that its instinct dictates as necessary for its survival is illogical. We must all recognise this, but for all that cannot always suppress our own instinct to protect the small from the large and the weak from the strong, ruthless, destructive and unrestrained predators of innumerable helpless species though we can be ourselves! Whatever emotions are involved, the facts are simpler to deal with and not in dispute. Despite the prevalent view, a whole series of separate studies has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that there is no correlation between magpie predation and the overall numbers of songbirds.

Magpies are common in Kingston, as they are elsewhere these days, persecution from gamekeepers having largely stopped. They have colonised or re-colonised most cities and are now often seen in central London, where the first successful breeding for a century or more took place as recently as 1971. Older, more experienced magpies can build remarkable nests with domed roofs.

As we all know, magpies do not only steal eggs. La Gazza Ladra hoards food, as do squirrels, coal tits and jays, but also has a reputation for thieving all sorts of man-made items from spoons to silver paper. This habit, however, seems confined to hand-reared young and to be an example of a misdirected trait. However, wild birds do occasionally spring surprises. One book has an account of magpie in a garden in a Lancashire village which brought a coin with it each time it visited a birdbath. It apparently 'deposited' a total 1-70 in this way over a period – not enough to save Northern Rock, perhaps, but more than enough to pay for its bath water.

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