Birds of Prey - Wooing the birds!

John O'Gaunt greenkeeper and ecologist, Steve Thompson, looks at three birds of prey that, with a bit of good fortune and careful planning, you should be able to attract to your course

In my last article, I talked about the barn owl, probably one of the UK's most recognisable birds of prey, and mentioned some of the things you can do to help. One of those was to supply boxes to offer a safe home for this wonderful bird, but there are other birds of prey that use boxes too and you might just have some of these on your golf course.


Imagine taking a stroll through your local woodland one evening in springtime or autumn. It may be on the golf course or a local park. It's a dark, clear night and not a creature is stirring. Then, suddenly, your senses are awoken by a familiar sound, probably one of the most familiar in the British countryside - too-wit too-woo too-wit too-woo.

It is, of course, the tawny owl and, if you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one as it flies across a path or from tree to tree. But it is not one bird that is calling, it is in fact two; a male and female calling to each other - the female goes too-wit and the male too-woo. They are generally heard in the spring during the breeding season and again from August after the adults have finished moulting during June and July.

The tawny owl (or brown owl) is the most common owl in the UK and is widely distributed throughout, only being absent from some of the islands off the north and west of Scotland, the Isles of Scilly and Ireland. It has recently been added to the amber list of species of conservation concern after some contraction of its range.

It is a woodland owl, so anywhere there are trees you will probably hear one. Tawnies are very sedentary, they do not migrate and do not really move far once they have become established. They are very territorial and will defend a complete territory against a rival; there's certainly no overlapping here. They are quite a powerful bird and, with power, often comes aggression. Famous bird photographer and naturalist Eric Hosking was returning to a hide one evening (in 1937) when a tawny struck and penetrated his left eye. The resulting infection meant choosing between losing one eye or probably going blind. The eye was removed and the ensuing publicity appeared in all the national newspapers, where his photographs were already in great demand. As soon as he was fit, he returned to the hide to continue taking pictures!

The tawny owl will eat almost anything, not just what you might expect it to. Small mammals feature quite heavily in its diet, but also rats, worms, invertebrates such as beetles, small birds and even frogs. Having such a wide variety in its diet is good for its chicks and ensures a better survival rate.

It is a cavity nester and, being a woodland owl, can be found nesting in holes in mature trees, but can also utilise old crows nests or boxes (which could be perceived as replicating a tree cavity). It is a single brooded bird, nesting in early spring and usually laying eggs in March or April, but has been known to lay as early as January. It will usually lay 2-3 eggs with the female incubating them for around thirty days before hatching. One very important thing to mention is that tawny owl chicks will leave the nest before they can fly, if you find one on the ground (probably near a tree), DO NOT PICK IT UP! If the bird is in danger, then move it to a safe place nearby, the adults will be nearby and be aware of its presence.


Another perhaps less familiar owl is the Little Owl, the smallest owl in the UK. This species is not a native bird of the UK. It originates from elsewhere in Europe, particularly the Mediterranean where it is sacred to the goddess Athene the virgin goddess of wisdom (perhaps that's why owls are thought of as wise) and can be found on some Greek coins. It is also found elsewhere in continental Europe.

One of the reasons for the Little Owl not getting here by natural means could be this: The UK used to be joined to mainland Europe and, at that stage, the owls hadn't reached this far. When the UK broke from the rest of Europe, the little owl stayed in Europe. There were several attempts at introduction, but none were successful until the end of the 19th century when they were introduced to parts of Northamptonshire and Kent, by wealthy landowners, to eat garden pests and have since spread to many other areas, but mainly in the south and east of the country.

The little owl could be described as a benign introduction causing no significant damage to current ecosystems - unlike the Canada goose or the grey squirrel - but, unlike many other species, the little owl is of no conservation concern, even though there has been some contraction of its range. It is a very sedentary bird with established pairs using the same site for many years.

A little owl's main food source is small invertebrates such as beetles which it can find easily in habitats consisting of short grass, but it will also feed on worms, small mammals, small birds and even some plants and berries. It may be small, but the little owl is certainly a feisty bird. When approached or threatened, it will bob up and down furiously ... and humorously!

It is a small cavity nester and birds will readily take to some box designs when suitable cavities are in short supply. They lay up to six eggs, usually in April or May.


The kestrel is perhaps one of our most familiar birds of prey and can often be seen hovering at the side of a road. It is this hovering technique that has earned it the name windhover. It is a small falcon and is widely distributed throughout the UK. It can be found in habitats wherever there is short or medium length grasses, such as grass verges by the road or rough areas on a golf course.

However, although the kestrel might seem like our most common bird of prey, it is on the amber list of species of conservation concern. It has been declining across its range, particularly in the north and west, but it is unclear at this stage the reasons why. One possibility is the competition for nest sites.

The kestrel is another cavity nester and will utilise holes in trees, old crows nests, buildings and cliff faces around the coast, but it also readliy take to nest boxes.

Kestrels appear all year round, but you are not necessarily seeing the same ones each time. During the winter months, some kestrels come over from Scandinavia where it gets a bit cold, whilst some UK kestrels have been known to fly as far as Spain.

It has quite a varied diet, eating worms, invertebrates, small mammals and small birds, so the young will always be catered for. Kestrels are single brooded, laying three to four eggs on average, but possibly up to seven, although this is not common. Egg laying is usually during April and May. The chicks fledge after around four weeks, but are dependent on the adults for a short period after.

Case study at John O'Gaunt Golf Club

The nestbox project here at John O'Gaunt all started off with a box for a barn owl in 1996 but, as we had kestrels about, we thought it a good idea to put up a box for them early in 1998, just to see what happened.

During the first year, the box was not used, although kestrels did nest in the barn owl box! In the second year, the box was used by stock doves but, in the third year, the kestrels did nest, and for most years thereafter up to 2015. There were a few years that they didn't use it, including one where jackdaws took over the box and, in 2016, when it was used again by stock doves.

Over the years, we added two more kestrel boxes, one at the opposite end of the course (which has not yet been used) and one on the Carthagena course, which was used for the first time in 2016.

During that February, I checked the box and found it to contain grey squirrels! The box was subsequently 'cleaned out' and the kestrels must have moved in straight away. They bred successfully and fledged two chicks, which was a great success.

When it comes to tawny owls, the best box I can recommend is an upright design box that must have a side inspection hatch if you are going to check it. When you open the hatch, the adult (if on the nest) can fly out the top and not into your face. We have two of boxes of this type, but they have only been used by Jackdaws so far.

We have several large boxes designed for stock doves that the tawnies have utilised, but these do not have an inspection hatch and great care must be taken when checking these, just in case!

On one occasion, I went to check a box as it was half hanging off a tree. I was not expecting to find anything inside but, to my surprise, I found one tawny owl chick about two or three weeks old and, very luckily, not the adult.

I suggest that, when checking any box that tawny owls might use, wear a face shield to give some protection. We do not currently have little owls breeding on either course, but there have been two sightings in recent years, so fingers crossed they will return.

When the time comes for checking the boxes, I suggest getting in a local expert who will have the appropriate licence to be able to ring the chicks and also offer any other advice.

Not all areas of a golf course need to be cut, we can leave areas of rough/long grass in out of play areas thus providing suitable habitat for insects and small mammals and a food source for some of our protected birds. Golf courses are great places for all sorts of wildlife from small insects to large birds of prey and, if looked after and managed well, the greenkeepers of the UK can provide a bright future for all our creatures.

Contact the BTO or RSPB for more info on any of the three species I have talked about.

John O'Gaunt greenkeeper and ecologist, Steve Thompson, suggests that there's a good deal that golf clubs can do to encourage barn owls to successfully breed

I often get asked what my favourite bird is and the answer is always the same; the silent, ghost like charismatic bird that is the barn owl.

I will never forget an experience I had on one occasion way back in 2002, early one evening, just a mile or so outside my village. I decided to go looking for a barn owl that had been seen in the area. I parked up in a lay-by and spotted the owl almost straight away quartering over a field by the side of the road. It's easy to see why they are often the victim of traffic collisions when its hunting right by the side of the road at such a low height.

I continued on foot, filming the owl with my video camera as it pounced on some prey then flew into a tree, before continuing along the roadside back and forth for several minutes, numerous times diving for prey. I watched as other cars came past quite oblivious to the beauty of nature that was right before their eyes.

I followed the owl for a while with the camera, before driving alongside it and eventually it gained height and flew further on. After another half a mile or so, at the top of a hill, I parked in a farm track to try and relocate the owl. It was just up the road a bit further. I stood by the car filming as it flew towards me, the camera slowly pointing to the sky as the owl flew straight over my head, not a sound to be heard apart from "oh my God!" from me. An experience I will not forget. But how much do you know about this silent, ghost like flyer?

The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world. The Scottish population (absent from remoter Scottish islands such as the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles) is the most northern. It can be seen on all continents, apart from Antarctica - it takes a special type of feather to keep you warm there! There are lots of birds in Antarctica; they are just a lot more feathered than barn owls.

It can be seen throughout the UK, avoiding only high altitude and urban areas. But the British population has been in significant decline in the last century, due to several factors - changes in agricultural practices, loss of habitat and nesting sites and collisions with road traffic. In the late eighties, there were roughly 4,500 pairs of barn owl in Britain and Ireland; a quite dramatic decline from circa 12,000 in the early 1930s.