Twelve different species of owls have been registered in Estonia. The following species are regular breeders: Tawny Owl, Tengmalm’s Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, Ural Owl, Pygmy Owl and Eagle Owl. Winter visitors Hawk Owl and Great Grey Owl have also nested on occasion. The Snowy Owl is an irregular winter visitor, and the Barn Owl and Little Owl are vagrants.
Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) has been chosen as the Bird of the Year for 2009 by the Estonian Ornithological Society. It inhabits Estonian cultural landscapes including parks, cemeteries, and forest patches between fields. The species is widespread in the western part of the country and on the islands. Tawny owls have occupied 10% of the nest boxes which have been placed for them. There are two plumage colour morphs of the Tawny Owl – grey and light brown. Studies carried out in Estonia between 1977 and 1990 of 251 adult birds have shown a slight majority of grey birds – 54,6% – in comparison with light brown – 45,4%. In the Bird of the Year project the Ornithological Society will pay significant attention to the distribution of tawny owls with different colorations in Estonia.
The number of breeding pairs of the Tawny Owl has been estimated at 1000-2000 between the years 2003-2007. The average population density is 3.5 pairs per 100 km2. Approximately 3000-6000 birds winter in Estonia. Between the years 1922 and 2007, 1394 birds were banded. The first ringing of the Tawny Owl was done in 1937. There have been 48 recoveries of the Tawny Owl, whereas 2 birds have flown out of Estonia to northern Latvia. One banded bird from Finland and one from Latvia have entered Estonia. According to banding data, 18% of banded Tawny Owl nestlings perish within their first year of life. The oldest banded tawny owl wore its ring for 6 years, 10 months and 6 days.
Tengmalm’s Owl (Aegolius funereus). Tengmalm’s Owl lives in dune pine forests and near forested rivers and lakes. For nesting it most often uses old nest cavities of the Black Woodpecker. It often falls prey to plunderings of the Pine Marten. There are 200-400 breeding pairs of Tengmalm’s Owl in Estonia, with an average density of 0.5 pairs per 100 km2. Approximately 100-1000 birds are estimated to winter in Estonia. Between 1922 and 2007, 648 birds have been banded (mostly in bird stations). Tengmalm’s owls have flown from Estonia to Latvia and Finland, and birds from Finland and Russia have been recovered in Estonia.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). The Short-eared Owl is a bird of open landscapes and breeds in mires, floodplain and coastal meadows, and on open agricultural land. The species was a very numerous breeder in the year 2005. The breeding population in Estonia has been estimated at 10-300 pairs, with an average density of 0.1 pairs per 100 km2. A very rare winterer, with perhaps a maximum of 5 birds. Forty-one birds have been banded with only one recovery from Finland 4 years and 2 months later.
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). The Long-eared Owl is bird of cultural landscapes. It breeds in forest patches, hedges and woodlands around farms. For its nests, it uses the old stick nests of crows and squirrels. Numbers vary greatly, depending on the cycles of vole populations. In Estonia, there are 500-4000 breeding pairs, with an average population density of 3.9 pairs per 100 km2. It is rare in winter, with 100-400 birds. 1048 birds have been banded in Estonia and 9 recoveries have been made outside of Estonia: from Germany, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and Byelorussia. Birds from Finland, Latvia, Russia and Sweden have found their way to Estonia. The oldest banded long-eared owl in Estonia has lived for 9 years and 2 months.
Ural Owl (Strix uralensis). The Ural Owl breeds only on the mainland of Estonia, though some individual birds may reach the islands in the winter months (Manija, Kihnu). The Ural Owl is a bird of large forested areas. It nests in high-up broken hollow trunks, in large stick nests and in nesting boxes with larger holes. There are 1500-2000 breeding pairs in Estonia, with an average population density of 3.4 pairs per 100 km2. Between 4000 and 6000 ural owls winter in Estonia. In the years 1922-2007, 417 birds were banded, and there have been 12 recoveries. From beyond the borders, one bird has arrived from Russia, and one ural owl banded at the Kabli ringing station has flown to Russia. The Ural Owl also holds the age record for owls in Estonia – 9 years and 10 months.
Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinium). The Pygmy Owl lives in old spruce and spruce-dominated mixed forests. It nests in the old nest cavities of the Greater Spotted and Three-toed Woodpeckers. There are 600-1200 breeding pair in Estonia. The average population density is 1.5 pair per 100km2. In Estonia 1000-3000 birds winter. Eighty birds have been banded, the majority at bird stations during autumn migration. There has been only one recovery from within Estonia.
Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo). The Eagle Owl is the largest of Estonia’s breeding owls. It nests in dune pine forests and in large mires where bird-rich lakes can be found. Both numbers and breeding success have been decreasing steadily. At present 60-120 breeding pairs are estimated, with a population density of 0.2 pair per 100km2. Wintering birds may be 150-300. Sixty-seven birds have been banded, and the longest known life of an eagle owl in Estonia is a modest 2 years and 10 months. One bird from Finland and one from Latvia have been recovered in Estonia.
Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula). The Hawk Owl is a regular migrant and wintering visitor with varying numbers. There are estimated to be up to 20 birds in Estonia during the winter. This species has also bred occasionally in Estonia, the last record of which was in 1974 in north-west Estonia. One bird has been banded during the autumn migration period.
Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa). The Great Grey Owl was a regular breeder in Estonia during the second half of the 19th century. During the last quarter of the 20th century winter sightings of this owl increased, and more frequent records came during the breeding period as well. On two occasions, in 1997 and in 2008, nestlings of the same season were seen, but no nests have been found. The owls are seen in larger forest areas. During the years 1998-2002 the number of wintering great grey owls have been estimated at 1-10 birds.
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiaca). The Snowy Owl is an irregular winter visitor, of which sightings have been decreasing.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba). The Barn Owl is a rare vagrant, sightings of which the Estonian rarities committee has recorded five times. The last record is from northern Estonia in Kunda on 5 June 2008.
Little Owl (Athene noctua). The Little Owl is the rarest of owls in Estonia, which has been registered by the rarities committee only once. The bird was found near Koluvere in western Estonia during the 1880’s.