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This series of Entries covers every non-native breeding bird in the UK as part of an online field guide. It will not cover budgerigars, cockatiels or canaries, or some other wildfowl such as bar-headed geese, muscovy ducks or other assorted exotics, as they are not deemed to be sustainable, if breeding in the wild in Britain at all. Non-native is defined as 'relating to, originating from, or having the characteristic of another place or part of the world, and having immigrated, or been introduced, from an area which is outside of its normal distribution range'.
The little owl, Athene noctua, is the only owl in the British Isles of this genus and is a common, although often overlooked, owl. It is a very popular subject among wildlife artists because it is often seen in many different body postures. Many see it as a comical owl as it is so different from the other British owls, being much more squat and solid, with a very piercing gaze. Its size means it can be missed when out for a stroll. It is also one of only two British owls that are active during daytime1, the other being the short-eared owl. It has a peculiar trait where it bobs its head up and down regularly, which is believed to help it judge distance.
Like all living organisms, the little owl is classified according to its physical characteristics. This is known as its taxonomy. All birds share the same basic features:
- Kingdom: Animalia, meaning having life, sensation and voluntary motion.
- Phylum: Chordata, meaning having a notocord, which is the basis of having a spinal cord.
- Sub-Phylum: Vertebrata, meaning having a skeleton and an articulated backbone.
- Class: Aves, or birds, meaning: possessing a horny beak; no adult teeth; large muscular stomach and crop; feathers; yolked, hard-shelled eggs; and a strong, light skeleton.
The little owl is further classified as:
- Order: Strigiformes, the owls.
- Family: Strigidae, the 'true' or 'typical' owls2.
- Genus: Athene; there are generally accepted to be four species of this genus in the world.
This is one of the smallest owls in Eurasia, measuring 21 - 23cm, with a wingspan of 54 - 58cm. It is a small, compact but bulky owl, weighing 140 - 220g. The plumage varies in colour from grey-brown, via rufous-brown, to ochre-buff. It has no ear tufts. The facial disc and bright yellow irises are distinctive in this owl as most owls do not have such a stark contrast, giving it its sharp, stern appearance. Its plumage is heavily-spotted throughout, with a flat squat head, and no obvious neck. An upright bird, especially when excited or alarmed, it can also be seen bobbing when perched. It has a nimble walk, fast run, and has been known to hop, which is unusual for owls which are rarely found on the ground unless feeding. Its flight is low and undulating with rapid wing-beats on the descent.
Its habitat is varied; the owl generally prefers to hunt over open ground rather than in woodland. It is often seen to favour conspicuous lookout areas, such as fence-posts and dead tree stumps in preference to dense cover which it generally avoids, preferring lowlands below 600m. This restricts it to England and Wales. Recently, the bird has been found in agricultural areas, old orchards, pollarded open woodland and farm buildings.
The little owl is not migratory. Its preferred food sources are small mammals and insects, along with earthworms taken from the ground, beetles and amphibians, usually hunted between dusk and dawn. It may be seen during the day, normally at rest on lookout posts. The bird is known to take larger prey such as wood pigeons and game birds, as noted below. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, little owls were sometimes kept as pets, helping to keep down cockroach infestations. It is generally solitary except when breeding, and is rarely vocal with a soft 'goooeeek' call and 'kweeew'. The breeding season is late March to early April, laying a clutch of two to five smooth, matt white eggs in a tree hollow, agricultural building or, in recent times, owl nestboxes. Incubation takes 27 days, with the young being born down-covered, and fledging at 30 - 42 days.
This bird has been revered for centuries, as being the symbol of Pallas Athene - Goddess of Wisdom and principal deity of Athens. Both the city and the bird take their name from Athena, with the bird's scientific name translating as 'Athene by night'.
Little is known of its original introduction into the UK, but records go back to 1758, with the first recorded release in 1840. Bred as an exotic, due to its size and ability to be tamed, escapees did occur. There are known to be two major intentional releases, one in Kent and Hampshire, and another in Northampton, creating a major population growth in the 1920s. This created concerns among the game-breeders' world, and led to major persecution, as it was known that they could take moorhen and lapwings, and it was feared that they would take game birds as a food source:
...[it is a] scourge for the game preserver, courageous and bold even to the point of impudence and [is] very prolific.
- Field Observations on British Birds, a 1920 field guide by FM Ogilvie.
In 1935, the newly-created British Trust for Ornithology asked Miss Hibbert-Ware to conduct a major investigation into the bird's diet, which found that half the diet was composed of rodents, and the bulk of the balance consisted of cranefly eggs and earwigs. This led to the bird being more generally accepted. However the United Kingdom population is in decline, with around 9,000 breeding pairs and an overall population of 12,000. The cause is unknown, but modern farming practices and lack of habitat may be a factor.
Luckily the British have a great love for owls in general, and this may assist in stemming their decline. However, more research is needed to identify the cause.