Looking after an orphaned

Tawny Owl (cont.)


Preparing for release

Good owl territory in the Weald, with fields, hedgerows, trees between fields, and belts of woodland. Click on pic for a wider version.


It's a good idea, though not absolutely necessary, to "teach" the young owl to catch live prey. There's very little more to this than buying three or four live mice and putting them out for the owl in a suitable place. You should find that it has no problem knowing what to do. The time to start teaching is in mid-June, when the owl is about two months old and there's still a month to go until release. I only say it's not absolutely necessary because recent releases of numbers of orphaned tawnies have shown that somehow almost all of them discover how to catch prey with no prior training.

First, it's helpful to know how a tawny hunts. "Hunting" is actually rather a grand word for it. During the day tawnies roost near the top of a tall tree. At night they move around their territory and settle on "hunting perches". These are often dead branches 10-15 feet up a tree trunk. Here they sit and listen for the tell-tale rustle of something moving on the ground below. When they've fixed its location and the time is right they swoop down, catch the prey and carry it off somewhere to eat. That's really all there is to it, and it's a simple matter to set up a similar situation for your owl.

An owl on a hunting perch. This is my own owl's mother, photographed in May 2008 when she was rearing another brood. A couple of nights later I found her on another hunting perch some 50 yards away. In both places she was about 15 ft above the ground. She's a capable huntress and was regularly bringing in catches for the youngsters.

So, in more detail. Where to get the mice? The only ones I ever bought I got from a pet shop. Make sure you have somewhere reasonable to keep them for a few days. I kept mine in a plant propagator I had around. They can be fed on larger bird mixes (include sunflower seeds, with or without husks) e.g. a wild bird or pigeon mix. Give them water too. Petshop mice can be very tame and I found them little problem to keep and handle.

Presenting the mouse to the owl can be done in a small garden shed or greenhouse, a small cleared room, or in a large box (sides of at least 3 feet and the same deep). A bath is another good option, which I used. Obviously there mustn't be any exits the mouse can use, or places from which you can't recover it, like under a washing machine or cupboards. It's a good idea to give the mouse rustly cover like dried leaves, which can be put in a small shallow box (sides not higher than 3-4 inches to avoid damage to the owl's wings). This will also confine the mouse's movements if you're using a shed or small room. Cut the sides of the small box down if necessary.

Going back to the large box, the mouse goes in the bottom and you leave the owl perched on the side. If you use a bath put an old blanket or rubber mat on the bottom so the owl doesn't slip, and the owl can be perched on a bath rack (the thing that goes across the bath to hold soap etc). In all cases use dried autumn leaves or similar debris from outside to give the mouse cover and simulate natural conditions for the owl. The rustling helps to catch its interest and stimulate the hunting instinct, as it does a cat.

Tawnies seem to be hard-wired and know exactly what to do. If yours doesn't show much interest, don't feed it for a day and try again. If that doesn't do the trick, withold food for one more day and try again. Offering the mouse should be done in the evening, when the owl is becoming active. If everything's working the end is quick and the whole show can be over in a couple of minutes.

Only give one mouse at a time and repeat a few days later with another.


Choosing a good location for release is critical to the success of the whole project, so should be done carefully. A complication here is that it will not help if the place you choose is already occupied by other tawnies.

I'd advise making an early start on selecting an area — not later than, say, early June, when there's only about a month and a half before the owl should be released in mid-July.


11.1 A typical tawny territory

The typical territory of a Tawny Owl comprises an area of woodland and neighbouring fields. Very roughly, the average size of a tawny pair's territory is 3/4 to 1 square kilometre (750 x 750 yards to 1,000 x 1,000 yards). The wood is used for roosting and nesting and some hunting, but it is widely thought that the margins of the fields are where the owls find most of their food. The type(s) of trees in the wood don't much matter, though I'd definitely go for an area where the trees are mature and varied. A mix of conifer and deciduous is probably ideal. That said, tawnies do seem to have an affinity for oaks. Avoid areas near busy roads if at all possible — they can be lethal for all owls. If you want a distance I'd say at least half a mile, though this can only be a guide as the owl may move away, or be moved away, from the release area. Other forms of human presence (e.g. houses or farms) don't matter at all.


11.2 Check for other tawnies

A few evenings spent listening in the area for resident tawnies could pay off because if the young owl is released into an occupied territory the owners will eject it sooner or later, and this can be an unpleasant early experience. Listening is best done in May or early June as after that tawnies tend to stop calling until autumn. Listen out for fledglings too (a hoarse wheezy squeaking that can be heard up to 80 yards away) as this will be a sure sign that the area is already occupied. Best time to listen is after 9 pm. People who live in the area can be a very useful source of information on where tawnies are heard locally — everyone knows what the male's hoot sounds like!

You might also keep an eye out for Goshawks and Peregrine Falcons, two birds that are known to take Tawny Owls.


11.3 Plan B: Release in the parents' territory

One option you have is to release the owl into its own parents' territory. This is a method on which I'm afraid I don't have certain information, but one young owl we released in 2003 actually headed for his parents' territory, which began about 600 yards away, and as far as we know was tolerated until he moved away later in the year. And from 2007 the same pair of parents have shared territory with a young female who we increasingly suspect is a child of theirs. This is highly unusual, but the small amount of evidence we have does suggest that parents will accept youngsters on their territory, including their own ex-orphans, at least until the autumn, when almost invariably they are told to move on.

A young female may be better tolerated by unelated territory-holding tawnies than a young male. (Sexing an owl requires a blood test, but your sense of whether your owlet is male or female may be correct!)


11.4 Getting permission

All woods and fields are owned by somebody and it's advisable (and simple good manners) to find out who owns the land and get his/her/its permission to release the owl. Some landowners are friendly and cooperative; others, as I have found, are definitely not. An owner is entitled to ask you to leave his land. You may be surprised to learn that in England an owner is allowed to physically take hold of you to escort you off his property. In Scotland (sensible place) the law discourages physical contact in such instances. (The situation in case law on what a landowner can do if you refuse to leave, or persist in entering his land, is apparently unclear as few cases have been brought to trial. Madonna, who bought up a largish area of English countryside to grow (I believe) herbs and aromatics, won a case recently to exclude the public from her land.) The land I am referring to here is typical enclosed agricultural land and private property; the situation with the "open countryside" that comes under the recent "Right to Roam" Act is different. There is no right to roam in the former, and whether you can "roam", i.e. stray from public footpaths, is entirely at the discretion of the owner. So best to seek permission before releasing owls!



Basically, when the day comes you can simply chuck your little owl in the air and hope it makes out. Incredibly (or again, perhaps not!), I once came across a video showing someone doing just that. Remember that many orphan tawnies will have absolutely no experience of the outside world at all — simply no idea of what's out there, how it all works, and how they're supposed to cope with it.

So I'm going to describe a dead obvious, simple and enjoyable way of giving your growing owl a good start in life.


12.1 The best way — walking the owl around its new home

The simplest and most effective way of introducing the owl to the natural world outside, and specifically with the area you've chosen as its new home, is to walk it around several times before you release it.

When you walk with an owl it takes in everything. You'll find that it's fascinated by what it sees, and like many birds it's remembering what it sees and doing a basic job of mapping. Many birds have a well-developed ability to do this as it's necessary for flying around an area safely. A pigeon placed in a strange room spends several minutes just standing and examining everything closely, bobbing its head this way and that, before attempting to fly. Much the same goes on in a young owl's head when you walk it around a new area. Its obvious interest also makes it a very enjoyable and rewarding thing to do. After some initial attempts to fly off, most owls behave themselves well on a tether and you shouldn't have problems.


When to do it

Within about a month of the release — so say from early June on. Obviously it helps to know by this stage where the owl will be put out, but walks in any similar area will be good for it. Go out after 6 pm when the owl is active.


What you need — jesses

All you need is a pair of jesses, some cord, a dog lead clip and an old leather glove. Everything can be made in a couple of hours with nothing more than simple materials and scissors. It doesn't cost much, and the effort is minimal. Above all it'll give your owl a flying (!) start to its life outside.

Jesses are the leather straps that owl and hawk or falcon keepers use to tether birds to the wrist or a perch. They are basically soft leather nooses that go around the legs and at the other end have holes through which a clip is fastened. The tethering cord runs from the clip to a glove or perch. As wild owls are attracted to a tethered owl it may may also help to show whether there are already others in the area.

If there's an owl or hawking centre near you, you could of course ask if they have a spare set you could borrow or buy.

Jesse gear

The jesses are the long leather strips next to the ruler. The one on the right is shown without the tail pulled through the slit, the one on the left is shown as worn, with the tail pulled through the slit to make a narrower part. All this is explained below.

The glove shown here is a welder's glove, but a gardening glove is plenty. It doesn't have to be leather — just thick. Your wrist, where the owl may choose to stand, can be protected by a jersey or shirt. The reason for wearing a glove is that owls' claws are sharp and hurt when it grips. The glove is worn on the left hand. Taking an owl out without a glove can be painful and is not recommended.

I find that owls prefer to stand on a shoulder. Make sure that the tethering cord is long enough to allow it to stand on your left shoulder when your arm is down by your side.

12.2 Making jesses

Buy some softish but quite tough leather. It should be supple and not stiff. You need a piece about 1 foot by six inches and a couple of millimetres thick. Mark out the shapes of the jesses on the leather. Each jesse is 12 inches long. 10 inches of this length should be made about 5/8 inch wide. At one end increase this width to just over an inch (1 and 1/8 in, or 3 cm). Don't increase the width abruptly there should be a "shoulder" where the width increases over half an inch or more.

The shapes you've marked out should look a bit like a tadpole, with a long tail and a broader head. Mark out the last inch or so of the tails so they narrow to a point. The "head" end wraps around the owl's leg, and the pointy tail will be pulled through a hole in the head and tightened to hold the owl's legs securely. like a noose. (For purists, this part of the "leg" is of course the upper part of the foot.)

Cut the two shapes out of the piece of leather with sharp kitchen or dressmaking scissors.

Now, on a centre half an inch back from the tip of the broad head end mark a round hole about 3/8 in across. Fold the leather across the circle and carefully cut it out so you have a hole of the size you've marked. Trim off the square end of the leather so the "tadpole" now has a nicely rounded head. Repeat this on the second jesse. Leave at least 1/4 in of leather margin around the holes you've just made.

Next, starting about 3 1/4 inches back from the head, in the top of the "tail" part of the strip, mark and cut a slit about 1 1/4 inch long. The cut should be made parallel to the length and go back to about 4 1/2 in from the tip of the head. The aim is to end up with a slit that's 1 in to 1 1/4 in long. Cut the slit with a Stanley knife or similar.

Finally, about 1 1/2 inches from the tail end of each jesse cut or punch a smaller hole than the one at the head end. This is to take the clip to which the tethering cord will be attached. The clip will go through both holes

You should now have two strips of leather, each with a hole near the broad end, a slit just beyond where the leather narrows, and a small hole near the tail end.

One more step and you're done. Take each jesse so that the smooth, outer side is facing you. Now take the pointed end of the tail and thread it through the slit just behind the head. Pull the entire tail through and pull quite hard until the jesse is straight. You end up with a narrower, twisted part behind the head of the jesse. The purpose of this is to act as a kind of catch when the jesse is fastened to the owl's leg the narrow neck sits neatly in the hole in the head. You'll see.


Finishing the jesses — clip, cord and glove

As mentioned earlier, the tethering cord should be long enough to allow the owl to perch on your left shoulder with your arm hanging down by your side. To avoid mistakes don't cut to the final length before testing with the owl on your shoulder. The cord should be strong enough to pull the owl up if it tries to fly away. When it does this the force is not large, but I'd recommend not to risk string. 1 metre of light-gauge supple nylon (not the stiffer polyester) cord from an ironmongers doesn't cost much and is absolutely safe.

The best place to get the clip from is an old dog lead. It shouldn't be too heavy. I'm afraid I don't know where such things can be bought new without a lead attached — possibly B&Q? Tie it to one end of the cord. Make a strong hole in one side of a left-hand glove near the wrist and fasten the other end of the cord through it. Make sure your knots are good and always check them before going out.


12.3 Putting the jesses on

Easier said than done at first, though the owl gets used to it after a while. Basically, place the head end of a jesse around a leg just above the foot (not higher), thread the pointed tail through the hole in the head and pull tight around the leg until the twisted part is sitting neatly in the hole. Repeat with the other leg. The jesses shouldn't actually be tight on the owl, but if made correctly they won't slip over the feet and will pull tight like a noose when the owl jumps off you.

Jesse attachment

Front and rear view showing how the jesses fit on the owl. Soft side goes inside, against the leg. The noose should be pulled close but not tight. If they're properly made they're comfortable and secure — the owl is not bothered by them and it can't escape. But watch out because it can certainly pull them off if you leave it unattended!

The actual business of getting the jesses on the first few times can be difficult and require patience. The owl will deftly lift its foot out of the noose just as you are pulling it to! It may simply fly off. You'll probably find it necessary to get someone to hold the owl firmly on its back on their lap or against their stomach, with the owl's legs pointing outwards and towards you. The person's hands must be around the wings so they are restrained. Wait for the owl to calm down and then attach the jesses. Attach the dog lead clip through the holes in the tails of the jesses (both of them) and you're done. Give the owl a few moments to recover from this indignity (it will).


Let the owl get used to wearing jesses and being tethered

Before you go outside the owl must get used to the idea of being tethered, and it will fly off a few times before it realises and accepts that it can't. This is usually very little trouble as owls learn quickly and won't attempt to jump after a short while. Another reason for an indoor trial is that you need to be sure that the jesses won't slip off when the owl does jump. You may also need to soften up the leather that goes around the owl's leg to make sure that it keeps a close fit. Another initial problem is that the owl may try to pull the jesses off with its beak, and some are remarkably good at doing this in a just a few seconds when you aren't watching! In practice I've not found this a problem as once outside the owl becomes too wrapped up in the experience to bother.

So, practise indoors a couple of times before going out. Go through the whole routine from attaching the jesses. Place the owl on your gloved left hand or wrist (where you can see it. Allow it to move to the shoulder later, when it's well behaved). Stand or walk around slowly. The owl will fly off a few times and be brought up short by the cord. It won't be hurt as long as you don't jerk the lead back and avoid hard furniture, though you'll probably end up a few times with an owl dangling upside down somewhere near your feet. Offer your hand for it to climb back on to. Be careful in case it tries to scramble up your front towards your face. Give verbal encouragement and keep calm.


12.4 First time out

Once you're confident that both you and the owl have got the hang of it you can go outside. A quick test in the garden is a good idea before going further afield as the owl may be excited by finding itself outside and make vigorous attempts to fly off, testing the worth of your jesses to the limit! With new jesses one may slip a leg, though fortunately it is usually only one and the owl can be recovered. It's wise to go accompanied by someone so that they can reattach a jesse that comes off. Don't take dogs with you. Don't take the owl on to a road, however quiet. If a car comes by it will panic badly and you'll have trouble bringing it under control. This goes for all (tawny) owls however used they are to being walked around.


12.5 What to wear when walking an owl

Best is an old and fairly thick jersey. This will protect your wrist if the owl moves on to it, but it's particularly good for the owl to grip if it prefers to ride on a shoulder. It will probably want to do that as all birds head for the heights where they feel safer and can see more. But always remove the owl from your head if it tries to ride there! It's completely impractical for various reasons, and the owl should be discouraged from doing it.

The owl will mess in the course of a walk. If perched on the glove this shouldn't be a problem, but if it's on your shoulder the mess will go down your back. This is mainly a problem when you return to the car. So have kitchen or car wipes handy (car wipes are better as they kill the smell) and a companion to wipe you down. There is absolutely no way of convincing an owl, or any bird, that this is antisocial behaviour, so groan or cuss but never get angry or try to discipline it.


12.6 Further afield — travelling by car

If travelling to the release or walk area by car, put the owl in a pet carrier with jesses on but lead off. Don't have an owl that's not used to a car loose inside the vehicle. Before getting out you'll need to check that the jesses are still attached as the owl may have pulled at them with its beak. If necessary reattach inside the car with the doors (and windows) shut. The same precaution should be taken when you attach the clip to the jesses. Having said that, tawnies are very amenable and usually make no attempt to escape. All that happens with mine is that she sometimes disappears up amongst the pedals, where she's quite difficult to recover. The owl may also make a mess, which is best cleaned off with a (damp-type) car wipe. Residual mess can be removed later with a sponge and water. Car fabrics are pretty good at resisting staining.

The young owl will appreciate being taken out. This one is about 75 days old, or two and a half months, and is taking a keen interest in her surroundings. Note how the jesses hang down from the rear — they shouldn't come out at the front. The photo was taken in a garden, a good place to start the first time the owl is taken out in case things don't go to plan.

12.7 Walking with the owl in the release area

Once it's settled down, walking out with your owl is pure pleasure. You'll find that it sits calmly, absorbing every detail of its surroundings. Allow it to move to your (left) shoulder if it wants. Talk to it occasionally and make encouraging noises. Walk through as much of the area as you can, at first using the same route and then gradually introducing variations. Stops should be made at various points so the owl can take things in at a slower pace. This is how an owl naturally moves around its territory — fly and perch, fly and perch.

Walks can last as long as you like. Two hours will probably be as much as either of you can take, and if the owl becomes restive that would be a signal to start back home. I've walked owls any time after five in the afternoon until well after nightfall — when of course they can see much better than you!

You don't have to walk all the time you're out. If the weather's nice it can be very relaxing to sit in a field or wood and just enjoy the surroundings.

Walking the owl will give more opportunity for monitoring for other tawnies in the area. If you hear an owl calling up to 9 or 10 pm (or say dusk) it's likely to be on a roosting perch, so hearing one nearby will be bad news. You really don't want to hear an owl in the wood that's going to be part of your owl's territory. Hearing one in a nearby wood, across fields, isn't such bad news.

Occasionally having a tethered owl on you will attract a wild owl. This hasn't happened to me yet, but I know someone to whom it has. Unfortunately if you do see an owl in the planned release area, especially in the wood part, you will have to rethink it! The owl may be a loner that would appreciate a companion of the opposite sex, or it may be one of a pair. In fact females will happily go round with another female, but I'd guess that a male wouldn't like another male in its patch, even when young. As it won't be easy for you to find out you'll probably have to consider another area.

How often to do it? Basically the more the better. I'd be aiming for about twice a week in the last month the owl was with me. Say a minimum of four or five walks.

Re weather, calm fine evenings are the ones to choose. Owls don't much like rain and they hate wind. Wind means anything that turns their feathers up.

Just a reminder: never take the owl on a road. A passing car will make it panic and take off around your head. This can be quite dangerous.

Walking the release area several times before you let the owl go can only be to its advantage. As I said before, the owl's smart little brain takes everything in and it'll build up a detailed picture of the wood and fields which, if it's lucky, will be its new home. Many if not all birds have this extraordinary ability to map and memorise an area, which is why I can't recommend walking out with your owl enough.

Next page: Releasing the owl and afterwards


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Quick jumper guide

Click on the link to go direct to that section


Teach the owl to catch mice — strongly recommended but not absolutely necessary.

Choose and check out a release area — essential.

Familiarising the owl with the release area — a long section including parts on how to make jesses and advice on walking the owl. I recommend you do this to maximise the owl's chances of survival.