MOST of us are familiar with the tawny owl, the commonest of our native owls.

These are the classic ‘brown owl’ with their characteristic “too-wit, too-woo” call (or “ke-wick, hoo-hoo” say the purists).

Having said that, if you hear both bits of the call, you’re probably hearing two birds. The too-wit is a contact call, often from a female bird, and the too-woo is generally an answering male.

Less well known is the barn owl, not least because there are far fewer of them.

Barn owl populations declined hugely in the latter part of the last century as a result of habitat loss and a reduction in the number of suitable breeding sites.

They have a specialised diet, feeding mainly on voles, which makes them more vulnerable to changes in the environment – anything that reduces vole numbers has a large knock-on effect on barn owl numbers. However, they can still be seen in rural areas of East Lothian.

They make a wonderful sight, appearing as pale, ghostly figures gliding silently low above the ground.

Barn owls are anything but silent when not hunting. They can produce an amazing range of noises, including hisses, snorts and screeches – all of which can be rather startling on an otherwise quiet night. It has even been suggested that the barn owl’s eerie appearance and sound could be the source of the howling banshee of Celtic mythology.

Barn owls can sometimes be seen during the day, especially during hard winters when food can be scarce.

However, there is another native owl which can regularly be seen by daylight – the short-eared owl.

This bird’s name derives from two small protrusions on top of the head, although these are definitely not ears, but are simply feathery tufts.

Short-eared owls are mainly various shades of light and dark brown, with a distinctly streaky appearance. Perhaps their most striking features are their yellow eyes, set in a conspicuous pale face.

Short-eared owls are not numerous in this country; in fact, there are probably only a few thousand breeding pairs in the UK. They mostly breed in upland areas of northern Britain, making nests on the ground lined with grass and down.

Their numbers are boosted massively during winter by an influx of birds from northern Europe, mainly to areas along the east coast. As a result, during summer they are best looked for in the open moorlands that are their preferred breeding habitat, but over the winter they’re more likely to be seen over rough coastal grasslands.

Whichever owl you happen to see or hear, it’ll certainly feature some superb evolutionary adaptations.

Their feathers have a fringe along the leading edge which makes their flight virtually silent. They also have relatively large wings for their body size, allowing them to glide at a slow speed and hover without stalling.

Some species, including barn owls, also have wonderful ears. One ear will be slightly larger and higher on the side of the head; an arrangement which allows the owl to pinpoint sounds incredibly accurately. Furthermore, the disc-shaped face acts almost like a receiver dish, focussing incoming sound towards the ears. These features are really useful for birds which rely heavily on hearing and stealth to catch their prey.

It’s almost enough to make you believe in intelligent design (only joking!).