Back in 2018 EWG and the Council ranger team collaborated on a fundraising bid to erect owl nest boxes all over Ealing for Barn, Little and Tawny Owls, the three most common species found in and around London. Barn Owls were our main target species, as we knew the other two were already breeding here in relatively good numbers. But the Barn Owl situation was less clear. We’d spotted and had sightings reported of them hunting in various areas, but no confirmed breeding.
So we managed to secure £2000 from Tesco Bags of Help to try to help them become established. We bought about 18 nest boxes of various designs to attract all three species and later in 2019 got to putting them up all across the Borough in likely locations. And with the parks team, we set about changing some of the local grassland management to encourage more biodiverse rough grassland habitat, mown on a 3-4 year rotation to encourage voles, mice and shrews. Basically boosting our owls’ and other predators’ food supply! You can see more about the early stages of the project here:
Our 2020 owl breeding season kicked off with a promising start as trail cameras placed on several of our boxes revealed that they were being visited by owls, including some Barn Owls. Unfortunately, the box where we confirmed Barn Owls as regular visitors in January and February fell victim to theft and disturbance later that season. Some men with a ladder were reported to us looking suspicious. and alas our trail camera containing all of our footage was gone. We had left it well alone after our last check in February so as not to disturb the owls if they were breeding. But when we went back to check in May/June the camera and the owls were nowhere to be seen. A hazard of leaving wildlife cameras out in any location, but especially in the urban environment. All was not lost however, as a pair of Kestrels moved in and raised young in the same box. Not a target species, but very welcome nonetheless.
We believe a Little Owl pair attempted to breed in one of our boxes in 2020 but couldn’t confirm if they successfully fledged. Anyway, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions prevented us getting out to monitor and check our nest box success rates for much of the breeding season, but this project was always going to be a long game of providing nest sites, changing habitat dynamics and boosting prey availability. We were patiently impatient that the 2021 season would be better and yield success.
Below is some footage of various owl species visiting, and even scrapping for access to our nest boxes. This tells us that with such competition and defense of boxes, that natural nest sites suitable for owls are in short supply. It makes sense as old trees with large cavities are few and far between in urban environments in particular where human health and safety is a genuine concern to be balanced alongside nature conservation.
2021 saw lots of owl action at various boxes, with all three species investigating. One particularly feisty Little Owl pair commandeered a large Barn Owl box for themselves, fighting off Barn Owls and Tawnys that came to inspect it for their own uses as you can see here:
We’ve been out recently with local licensed bird ringer Phil Belman to check on our nest boxes under license and ring any chicks we found for ongoing population monitoring. And though we are a little disappointed to say we’ve not confirmed any Barn Owls breeding (although there is still one inaccessible box and camera left to check), we have had a great year for Little Owls with a total of 10 chicks from three of our boxes. We tend not to check Tawny Owl boxes too closely as they have a reputation for being aggressive at the nest site. We did find one very early Tawny chick that fledged from a natural nest site locally, you can see him/her in this video:
Hopefully next year the possibly young and inexperienced Barn Owls who have been prospecting for nest sites at our boxes will move in and raise their own chicks. We’ve increased our number of boxes in 2020-21 too, with some of our members kindly making and donating nest boxes to the cause. Thanks Peter Nolan, David Gordon Davy and the Sullivans for making some great boxes for us free of charge. And here’s hoping 2022 is a bumper year for Ealing owls!
In the meantime, enjoy some photos of the adorable Little Owl chicks we ringed recently. Thanks to BTO licensed bird ringer Phil Belman for collaborating with us on this important part of the project to monitor our owl populations and how habitat management is affecting them over time.