Why Ireland is for the birds

Richard Collins says some species of bird refuse to visit our little island.

SOME bird species look down their ‘noses’, or their beaks, at Ireland. We are not good enough for them, despite our welcoming attitude. The woodpeckers are a case in point. From time to time, they visit and look at what we have to offer, but steadfastly decline the invitation to take up residence. One of them, the greater-spotted, was here long ago; its bones have been found in archaeological digs. Although there is no conclusive evidence that the bird bred, it’s likely that it did. Every other year, a greater-spotted visits us and, occasionally, there’s an influx of them. However, the visitors don’t stay to breed.

Woodpeckers have a good excuse for not liking us; we destroyed most of our woods in medieval times, leaving few trees with large holes for nests. Another shortcoming is the absence of wood ants, a favourite of the green woodpecker, a species that has wandered here on a handful of occasions.

But there are other conspicuous absentees. On a visit to Cornwall, last month, I heard the mournful calls of another anti-Irish bird; the tawny owl. It’s twit-hooo-hooo call must be the world’s most celebrated and evocative nocturnal sound. But tawnies are never heard or seen in Ireland, except on the soundtracks of films and television programmes. Night scenes in the cinema always feature tawny calls, even when set in Ireland; every time Father Ted ventures out at night, a Craggy Island tawny owl hoots. Film and television directors, clearly, make poor ornithologists.

A prestigious television series on the heritage of Ireland, broadcast some years ago, included tawny owl calls. Producers of heritage programmes should know better. The absence of tawnies is a mystery. The bird is found all the way from Holyhead to central Asia, with a separate population in China. A creature which can live happily in city parks, and also 4,000 metres up in the Himalayas, is highly adaptable. So why isn’t it here? What’s wrong with Ireland? The usual explanation is that the bird is too sedentary to cross the Irish Sea. But that’s a lame excuse. Although adult tawnies never go anywhere, their youngsters are more adventurous. At three months old, the chicks are evicted from their parents’ territory and have to find somewhere to live. Most don’t go far, but one in 200 British owlets ends up more than 100km from home. According to the Migration Atlas, the longest distance travelled by a tawny in Britain was 210km. A bird found 628km from where it was ringed was thought to have been a road victim, its body carried along attached to a vehicle. With some young tawnies moving considerable distances, it seems odd that none ever crossed the Irish Sea. A pair bred on the Isle of Man in 1961. Crossing from Scotland to Antrim should be no problem for a tawny.

Another excuse offered for the tawny’s absence is that it can’t abide our Irish cuisine, but this is hardly plausible. Tawnies take a wider range of prey than either barn or long-eared owls, both of whom are full Irish residents. Rodents, and mammals up to the size of small rabbits, are tawny staples. We have only one vole species here, but there are plenty of mice rats and rabbits. Birds of any species are eaten. Bats, frogs and beetles are also on the menu and there are records of fish swimming close to the surface being caught by a swooping owl. Wading into water in search of prey has been recorded. Nor is the presence of humans a deterrent. Tawnies will nest close to people and can be heard calling in the parks of central London.

Finland was colonised by tawnies in the 19th century. The bird’s range has been increasing in the Netherlands and in Russia, so it is possible that this charismatic owl will change its mind and give our emerald isle another look.

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