About Project Owl

Tawny Owl. Photograph by Howard Stockdale

For the last year or so we have been running the BTO Owl Appeal with the aim of funding Project Owl - a set of interrelated research on our nation's Owls. The appeal is set to 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. If you haven't already done so, please consider helping us to raise the further funds that we still need to plug our knowledge gaps and to shed some much-needed light on this fascinating group of birds.

Our Owls

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 are starting the Project Owl research by repeating two specially-designed Tawny Owl surveys carried out more than a decade ago to find out more about their patterns of occupancy/abundance and how they use different habitats. You can find out more information about the Tawny Owl Point Survey and the Tawny Owl Calling Survey on their respective webpages.

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. The results from the most recent set of tracking data are expected in the near future so keep an eye out for exciting news on this subject which we hope to build on with future tracking.

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.

Current and Planned Project Owl Work

We have ambitious plans for work on owls over the next few years, including:

Short-eared Owl. Photograph by Jeremy Robbins
  1. The Tawny Owl Point Survey: This structured Tawny Owl survey ran from mid-August to mid-October 2018  and is an enhanced repeat of past surveys in 1989 and 2005. It will provide reliable data on Tawny Owl presence and numbers in sample tetrads (2x2 km squares) using methods which can be repeated in future years. From this we can accurately assess trends in the occupancy and population of our commonest but often elusive owl species across different regions and habitats. This survey required volunteers to visit pre-selected squares for two visits in autumn 2018 with further repeats planned for early spring 2019 and, funding permitting hopefully, beyond. This survey is a great introduction to a national structure bird survey for birders of all abilities.
  2. The Tawny Owl Calling Survey: This Tawny Owl survey, repeats the approach adopted in 2005/06 in the Garden BirdWatch Tawny Owl Calling Survey and focuses on changes in Tawny Owl calling behaviour overwinter and with different levels of urbanisation. The survey started on the 30th September 2018 and will run until the end of March 2019. It is suitable for all volunteers who have regular access to a garden, park or any other area that may have Tawny Owls and can be visited repeatably. It involves doing 20 minute evening listening periods once a week. This survey is for anyone with even a vague interest in owls and can be joined at any time during the survey period with the more weeks you take part in the better.
  3. Owl Demographic Monitoring: Developing and supporting both new existing volunteer networks 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 as well as local communities to enhance the ways that their valuable work can inform conservation.
  4. Short-eared Owl Research: 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.
  5. Long-eared Owl Research: Gaining a better understanding of the ecological requirements of the very secretive Long-eared Owl by testing field methods for surveys, 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 mainly involve volunteers with a particular interest in this species.

How you can help

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

You can also take part in our Tawny Owl surveys starting this autumn which are suited to both expert and novice birders alike.

Keep an eye our e-Newsletter, BTO News members magazine, website, social media and birdwatching magazines out for additional opportunities in the future to volunteer with and learn about our future research plans as they develop. We will work with ringers and nest recorders through established channels.