Owls in Devon

This is an exceprt from ‘Life in a Devon Village’ by Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter. He served in the trenches in World War I, where he suffered shell shock, so he spent some years in a smal Devon vilage near Ilfracombe recovering and writing.

“Outside in the night, a thoaty, bubbling cry tore the darkness – skirr-rr-r!Signal of the parent owl’s coming. a white bird, moth-like, with wings stretching a yard, floated through the elms. I went back into the living-room. thump! Something wsa running about on the ceiling upstairs. Sounds of a struggle, squals, flump-flumping. Skirr-rr-r, as the old bird floated away to the cornfields, leaving the fledging owlet with a rat, which was still alive.

You should have been with me in my dark room under the glimmering uneven ceiling, to hear the screeching, the screaking, the screaming, the angry squealing, the raging of rat and owlet, the wrostling of fur and feather above my ceiling! They seemed to be wearing clogs. I could hear the owlet slogging with his long beak in hte rat’s skull. The mix-up went on, while my cat fumed and paced the floor-boards and growled, and the spaniel whined his immense excitement and leapt up at me. Then it was over, and the rat dashed over the ceiling, too big and strong for the owlet, and rustled away down the thick tunnelled wall, full of life and fight.

I returned to my wood-fire, and my book. The dog sighed and slept; the cat settled still on my knee. I heard a rustle in the corner by the unused beehive and saddle. There sat the rat, washing a bloody face. Skirr-rr-r, the rat gibbered, flicked round and vanished.

The owls entered by an angle-shaped opening, where the wal did not fill the apex. The opening was large enough tof a man to scramble through with the aid of a ladder.

During my first year in Skirr cottage, I often used to watch the owls at night. It was a time of great drought, and possibly an increase of mice.

On April 17th, the first egg was laid. Another appeared on the 18th, and a third on the 19th. There was no nest. The eggs rested on the lath-and-laster of the ceiling, among ancient mice bones and fragments of owl-pellets … during the second week in May the three eggs were hatched, and 2 more were laid. The owlets wer blind, partially naked, and made a shrill, lisping noise for food.

By midsummer there were 3 fully fledged owlets overy my ceiling; 2 snow-white bundes with long hooked beaks and immense claws; 2 tiny lisping parcels of skin and blindness; and 2 fresh eggs. A month later there were 5 grown owls, 4 adolescents, 2 babies, and 1 addled egg.

I climbed up, crept warily over the sagging ceiling amid bones, fur, feathers, and beetle-skins, and examined my owlery. the grown owls shrieked at me and flapped into the far gloom, the adolescents rushed away, and the babies blinked. What astonished me wsa the number of dead rodents lying near the nest. I counted 27 mice, 19 young rats, 2 sparrows, and 42 field voles. The time was 10 am. At 7 o’clock in the evening I climbed up and nothing remained of them. 90 animals eaten by 11 young owls in 9 hours! And this, moreover, during hte time of rest and sleep.

Lying on the grassy slope of the garden wall in the summer dimmit-light, I watched the parent birds at work. At sunset they emerged like unfurled white blooms against the reddish-purple-grey tower of the church, and floated eastwards over the bombstones to the glebe field. At intervals from 3 to 6 minutes either the cock or the hen would return with a mouse, or mice, held in beak or dropped foot. their children hissed frantically, the prey was cast among them, and the bird sailed away, pursued by screaming swifts.

Throughoutthe summer nights the toiling owls brougnt food for their young. when they fed themselves I know not. they worked for about an hour and a half after dawn.

For themselves and their family the barn owls caught 150 mice every night. From April to the end of August I reckoned that nearly 10,000 mice and small rats were brought to the owlery in the roof of Skirr Cottage.

4 thoughts on “Owls in Devon

    • Glad you liked it. Apparently he is less popular than he deserved as he thought Hitler was the only person who could bring stabilty to Europe. glad he stuck with his writing on nature.

      On Fri, May 31, 2013 at 12:53 PM, texthistory


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