Project Owl

We have recently launched the BTO Owl Appeal. We hope the appeal will fund an exciting programme of work over the next few years, and provide long-term support to our skilled volunteer bird ringers and nest recorders.

Tawny Owl. Photograph by Howard Stockdale

So why Owls?

Data collected for Bird Atlas 2007-11 has shown a worrying contraction in geographical range, and decline in abundance for Short-eared Owl. This species shows the second greatest decrease in absolute number of 10-km squares in Scotland between 1988/91–2008/11. We urgently need to learn more about its breeding ecology and movements outside of the breeding season.

Although the distribution of Tawny Owl has changed little over the last 40 years, Breeding Bird Survey data suggest that the population is declining. We urgently need to repeat specially-designed surveys to find out more about their patterns of abundance and how they use different habitats; the last Tawny Owl survey was carried out more than a decade ago.

Long-eared Owl is one of our most poorly monitored species in Britain and Ireland. We know how its range in different areas has changed from atlas work, but there is no information on population trends. A small number of volunteers already undertake local studies during the breeding season to monitor nesting success, and there is potential to build on this.

There is much more to learn about Barn Owl and Little Owl too, neither having been specifically surveyed at a national scale to assess range or abundance since the mid-1990s. There is also a degree of uncertainty around the representativeness of more recent population trends produced by Breeding Bird Survey for Barn Owl and Little Owl because people are less likely to encounter them during the daytime,
when this survey is carried out.

Tawny Owl. Photograph by Herbert & Howells

Planned work

We have ambitious plans for work on owls, including:

  1. Carrying out a study of Tawny Owl, repeating the approach adopted in 2005/06 in the Garden BirdWatch Tawny Owl Calling Survey, but additionally securing more information on local habitats. This survey would be suitable for all volunteers who have regular access to a garden or area that may have Tawny Owls. This project is planned for autumn 2018.

  2. Running a structured Tawny Owl survey in autumn 2018, following the methods used in the 1989 and 2005 surveys, enhanced to gather additional information. This will provide reliable data on Tawny Owl numbers in sample areas (2x2 km squares) using methods which can be repeated in future years, so that population change may be assessed accurately, and to compare numbers in different areas and habitats. This survey will require volunteers to visit pre-selected squares for 2-4 visits in autumn 2018.

  3. Developing new volunteer networks and support existing fieldworkers to collect larger quantities of high quality information on aspects of their biology such as clutch size, brood size, laying date and adult survival, which will help us understand the reason for population changes we are observing. We will develop these networks for Barn Owl, Little Owl and Tawny Owl, working closely with bird ringers and nest recorders to enhance the ways that their valuable work can inform conservation.

  4. Establishing new connections between our volunteers and local community groups responsible for sites with breeding owls. This will involve ringers, nest recorders, and local communities.

  5. Building on the pilot research being carried out on Short-eared Owls in Scotland to deliver a better understanding of home range, habitat use and year-round movements. This will involve a combination of BTO staff and potentially interested volunteers.

  6. Gaining a better understanding of the ecological requirements of the very secretive Long-eared Owl by testing field methods for survey, and by then building the skills and interest of volunteers to promote more detailed studies in those parts of Britain and Ireland of particular importance to the species. This will involve volunteers with particular interest in this species.

How you can help

Donating to our Owl appeal will greatly help us in organising this body of research.

As plans for these project ideas develop over the winter months we will keep you informed about how you can get involved. We will be recruiting volunteers for the two autumn 2018 surveys during the summer months - keep an on our enewsletter, BTO News members magazine, our website, social media and birdwatching magazines. We will work with ringers and nest recorders through the channels we have already established.