The Little Owl (Athene noctua)

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Widespread and common, this stocky and robust owl is perhaps familiar to many of us in Andalucía. Although, with its wonderfully camouflaged plumage it can easily escape being seen by our casual observations whilst we travel throughout our surrounding countryside. The Little Owl is widespread across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Its range in Eurasia extends from the Iberian Peninsula and Denmark eastwards to China and southwards to the Himalayas. In Africa it is present from Mauritania to Egypt, the Red Sea and Arabia. It was only introduced to the United Kingdom in the 19th century and has spread across much of England and the whole of Wales. Our bird is a sedentary species that is found in open countryside and in a great range of habitats such as agricultural land with hedgerows and trees, orchards, woodland edges, parks, and gardens, as well as steppes and stony semi-deserts. It is also present in treeless areas such as dunes, and in the vicinity of ruins, quarries, and rocky outcrops. It will sometimes venture into our villages and suburbs. In continental Europe and Asia, it may be found at higher elevations; amazingly one individual was recorded at 3,600 m (12,000 ft) in Tibet.

For me, owls have always had a fascination and held a special place in my birding life, they are attractive, have such mythical qualities and are so embroiled in our history and folklore. Take our Little Owl, a little digging and reading soon reveals the name Athene is associated with the Greek Goddess Athena (Owl of Athena), and another name for this owl is Owl of Minerva, again an association with a Goddess, the Roman Goddess Minerva, and so our small owl represents both knowledge and wisdom in history. Back as far as 500 BC a Little Owl with an olive branch appeared on a Greek tetradrachm coin, a copy of which appears on the modern Greek one-euro coin, and there is a 500 BC bronze statue of Athena holding the bird in her hand. To add to the references in history is it is said the call of a Little Owl heralded the murder of Julius Caesar. And yet historically and perhaps less flattering it is also seen as a harbinger of death in some European and North African countries. So, not just an attractive small owl, but also one steeped in history and myth.

I am very fortunate to have a few owls visit in and around my garden with Little and Tawny Owl being regular and Scop’s Owl visiting during the summer months. Just occasionally I get a magnificent Eagle Owl paying a visit to the garden and this has me rushing around like some demented child excitedly trying to find the position of a calling bird. The local Tawny Owls have become fairly used to me and will approach to within a few feet during some early evenings affording me great views and it is such a privilege to stare into their friendly and confiding eyes, whilst Little Owl, who is mainly nocturnal, will also appear in the garden during the day and in contrast to the friendly gaze of the tawny, their furrowed white eyebrows give the appearance of a fierce and disapproving stare. The Little Owl is small and cryptically coloured being part of the family Strigidae, known as true owls, most species of owl belong to this group.

Having a pair locally to me gives opportunities to watch these characters as they busy themselves in their daily antics, short and undulating flights, scamping on the ground as they chase juicy morsels and standing sentinel as they stare intensely towards the ground from a high perch, watching for any give away movement from potential prey. Then there is the reaction of other birds as they discover the presence of a daytime Little Owl and scold them, stoop at them, and hassle them until they decide enough is enough and move on. All highly entertaining and great fun to watch.

Aside from my local pair, I often encounter these owls on my travels around the local mountains and cultivated plains and valleys. Normally I see them perched around an old dilapidated ruined building or on a pile of rocks that have been stacked and gathered by local farmers to clear areas for cultivation. They can be hard to spot as their pale cryptic plumage can blend perfectly with the colour of grey rocks and buildings, although often they perch high on old walls and atop of rock stacks that can make seeing them easier. They are wide ranging and present in local orchards, on cliffs, woodland edges, open spaces and even in some local villages. The ability to populate diverse habitats is enabled by the wide variety of food they can choose, they largely feed on insects, earthworms, vertebrates including amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, quite a comprehensive menu!

Little Owls are territorial with the male normally choosing to occupy a territory for life, but the size of territory can increase and decrease depending on the season with the courtship season seeing a territory increase to its greatest limits. Territory can also vary depending on habitat with more open i.e. farmland areas necessitating much larger territory than one that includes a high diversity of habitats. Rivalry between males can be a fierce affair with the occupying male attacking the intruder repeatedly until they withdraw, this will happen against strange males, but neighbouring birds are tolerated to a degree and studies have revealed that neighbouring birds are recognised by voice.

I have seen these owls in urban surroundings and if these birds are living in an area with plenty of human activity, they can grow accustomed to people and become quite tame and perch in full view unperturbed by our presence. Their life expectancy is around 16 years but sadly these small owls suffer heavily from collisions with vehicles, mostly at night, and this will affect some local average life spans and populations.

Lack of space for this article means I have dealt with this wonderful owl in a very limited way, but I hope this brief article might give you an insight into the life and times of the Little Owl.

Article: Peter Jones
Photographs: Peter Jones

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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