Bleak winter

What could have killed these two tawny owls found dead in the wood around my home? My wife is holding one that was just barely alive, while the other lies dead beside her. The first we knew of the incident was when a reader approached me in Waitrose and said that during an early morning walk past my house she had seen two owls next to the path, lying quite still. There appeared to be no wounds or damage.

Reaching the spot an hour later, we were quite puzzled by what we saw.

Both birds were lying on the bank facing one another, almost touching. They were in perfect condition, with not a feather ruffled. Their eyes were still bright black when lids were peeled back. They had no wounds, no broken bones, no apparent sickness of any kind. In cases of poisoning for example, birds may vent abnormally and have dishevelled feathers around the vent. One was dead, but one still alive, though unconscious.

When Anne placed her finger under its beak it nibbled the skin gently. Within the hour it was cold. You can always tell if a bird has been shot with a shotgun since wing feathers will have broken shafts. Even the barbs on the shafts will show fracture, while somewhere amongst the feathers you will see the odd wound or patch of blood. The birds had not been trapped in a cage because their faces and wings were quite perfect, the feathers unbroken anywhere.

Why were the birds together? This suggested that two males had been having a fight. In autumn they are very busy claiming new territories. Summer young are trying to fit into available space and that may be limited. But their enormous talons and hooked beaks had not been used in anger recently. The RSPB were unable to help really. As poisoning did not seem to be the cause, nor other human malpractice, this could not be considered a wildlife incident when the police would need to be involved.

Anyway, why would the birds be so close together if they had suffered poison? They would be off into corners by themselves. Years ago I used to take dead bodies of animals to a laboratory in Surrey for post mortems. There usually had to be large scale incidents of several specimens together to make the work worthwhile. Even so, I did have one or two roe deer tested, when the autopsy showed that they could have died from any combination of up to 50 pesticides present in the carcass. I am talking of the situation 25 years ago when pesticides were far less controlled than today.

So the two dead owls near my home remain a mystery. My wife, who suspects the unexpected ulterior motive every time, thinks these two birds were somehow destroyed by a human, and dumped on the side of a public way for whatever reason they might have had. Is there anybody out there who knows what happened and can give a clue with anonymity? Meanwhile, another reader from Lordington has just reported finding a perfectly pristine adult tawny owl near her home. She could find no mark on the bird. Are there any others?

The tawny owls in this wood have not declined: the same birds which call every night are still calling here, which does suggest that our two casualties have been imported for some obscure reason. In the past summer, populations of small wood mice and also yellow-necked mice have crashed. For the first time here in 40 years the yellow-necks have not been thumping about at night over the bedroom ceiling. All has gone very quiet suddenly. Owls may have a bleak winter ahead, but starvation does not seem the cause of these two deaths.

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