December 12, 2017

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

When we were first viewing the house we now live in, I saw a pair of Little Owls silhouetted on a branch overlooking our side garden. We’d already pretty much decided to buy the house but lets just say that owl appearance certainly didn’t harm it’s prospects.

Every year since we’ve moved in, the owls have nested in an old hollow apple tree in our neighbours’ front garden and early each summer I’ve usually seen the female teaching a youngster or two how to catch worms or insects on our front lawn. They’re partly diurnal or active during the day and also crepuscular, which means they’re particularly busy in the twilight hours either side of dawn and dusk, so fairly easy to spot during the day once you get your eye in.

They’re not a native species, but a mid 19th century introduction and unusually for an introduced species have neatly fitted into the UK ecology without discernible negative impact.

They’re pretty small owls, a little smaller in length than a Blackbird, but obviously a lot stouter and their plumage very well camouflaged particularly when sitting motionless on an old branch. However they do have favourite perches, so once you’ve spotted one in the same place a few times, it’s relatively simple to observe and perhaps even photograph them (see above). Apparently in some places they’re so accustomed to humans that they’ll boldly sit on a fence post in plain view. Ours were never so accommodating but with a bit of patience I managed to photograph one on a few occasions.

Towards the end of last summer, an injured male owl was found in the lane beyond our drive and taken to local rescue center. Sadly that was the last sighting any of us had of any Little Owls. I’m guessing the injured owl was a juvenile as I’ve normally only seen males courting our resident female in early spring. Her disappearance could simply be due to natural causes as they’re not particularly long lived creatures. I’d observed her for five years and three is the average life span so she may just have died, but because of the injured male, I just wonder whether she picked a fight with the wrong Tawny Owl, perhaps defending her chick.

Very often I’d be woken in the early hours by some very vocal sparring between Little Owls and an interloping Tawny (Strix aluco) and the larger species is known to occasionally predate the smaller, so maybe it’s not too fanciful a notion.

With a little luck, the excellent habitat around us may encourage another owl to take up residence, but for the time being the nightly hooting of amourous Tawny owls continues to go unchallenged.