A little owl lifts off, on the hunt for an insect or unwary rodent. Drystone walls (here in south Wales) make ideal lookouts.
The pint-sized little owl is our fiercest bird of prey, but does it belong in the UK? Derek Niemann charts the changing fortunes of a plucky immigrant.
Britain’s smallest owl leaves a big impression. It acts the rude boy at dawn and dusk, rising from its perch to cast a stare of searing ferocity that would almost terrify were the bird not the size and shape of a honeydew melon.
There is nothing to fear and much to enjoy about the little owl. Nature lovers register its presence at time-honoured roosts and perches, and watch it hunting in the open, quartering low at twilight.
They are charmed by its vocal repertoire: the ‘gooek’ call of the male; the hissing, snoring young in early summer. But while we may have taken this scowling gremlin to our hearts, the bird could be said to have no place in our heads.
All of the UK’s native breeding birds are given a colour according to their conservation status. This is a traffic light-coded scheme led by the Government and supported by every major conservation organisation. Birds on the red list are urgent priorities, ‘amber’ species are deemed at risk and green-list birds are in no immediate danger.
Native, or not welcome?
But the lights are out for the little owl – it passes through this colour assessment bearing an ominous ‘no status’ label, which it shares with Canada and Egyptian geese, the pheasant and mandarin duck.
In our census-driven system for protecting birds, the little owl simply does not count. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) estimates that its numbers fell by 46 per cent between 1967 and 2007, but no official finger will be lifted to halt its decline.
Just 34km of water separates this bird from acceptability.
It is native to France, yet never crossed the English Channel in sufficient numbers to establish itself on the northern shore under its own steam (see timeline, below). Here, it has to wear the dreaded ‘non-native’ tag.
The authors of an official report on the status of birds in the UK stated bluntly: “We do not consider populations of non-native species to be of conservation value.” If the writing is not exactly on the wall for the little owl, the conservationists’ message is certainly clear.
Wide-eyed and wise
Historically, people in the Mediterranean embraced the little owl – perhaps too literally, for it was often sold as a pet in the marketplace.
The ancient Greeks, hypnotised by its gaze, ascribed to it great powers. Turn over any silver coin from Plato’s era and you will find its saucer-eyed image (the flip side depicts Athene, goddess of wisdom, who has the owl as her emblem).
Leonardo da Vinci made the owl the hero of one of his animal fables, and in 1769 the erudite Italian ornithologist Giovanni Antonio Scopoli gave it the scientific name Athene noctua, meaning ‘wisdom goddess of the night’.
Due to its fondness for open countryside, forest clearances enabled the little owl to spread through northern and western Europe. But though the woodsman’s axe also reshaped the British landscape, it was never enough for the species to gain a foothold.
‘Our’ birds are the descendants of those brought over as novelties in the 19th century and later released in southern England by country gents who knew nothing of the risks of introducing non-native species.
Yet part of this interloper’s universal appeal is that – unlike the eagle owl, say, or the bold and brassy ring-necked parakeet – it doesn’t seem to ruffle feathers here. Mark Avery, the RSPB conservation director, admits: “We probably wouldn’t be terribly keen on an introduction like this nowadays.”
But, he adds, “I don’t know of any harm done by the little owl to our native fauna. It belongs in this part of the world. It mixes with largely the same wildlife here as on the other side of the Channel.”
Emily Joáchim, investigating the causes of the little owl’s decline for her PhD, tells me that it has found its own ecological niche in Britain. “Within 40 years of being released, this fairly sedentary bird had become an established resident as far north as the Scottish border,” she says. “But its niche is not as clearly defined as we might like to believe.”
The little owl has a reputation as a beetle killer and worm catcher – a pocket predator distinguished from other birds of prey by its fondness for invertebrates. This is only part of the story, however. Small mammals (particularly voles) and birds, such as sparrows and starlings, make up nearly half of the diet of a hunter that knows no fear.
It is the most courageous raptor at large in Britain, capable of tackling young rabbits its own weight. At the end of its strong, stocky legs are talons controlled by exceptionally powerful muscles. Once these hooks lock on, they simply won’t let go.
So does the little owl’s catholic diet cause conflict with other birds of prey, I wonder? “There is some competition with kestrels and barn owls,” confirms Emily.
Home is where the heart is
If you’d like to see the little owl’s hunting prowess for yourself, late spring and summer are the best time to do it. Shorter nights and the need to satisfy a growing family back at the nest make the adults more visible than in any other season.
The gloomy couple of hours after sunset and before sunrise are peak foraging periods, but around Midsummer’s Day (24 June) the voracious chicks are so demanding that their parents sometimes appear in broad daylight.
Just like tawnies, little owls are creatures of habit and ‘home birds’ at heart. A pair will not stray far from its own small territory, defending it against invaders, and roost sites are used by successive generations. The more isolated or exposed the roost’s location, the better.
I remember a lone tree opposite my local vineyard in Cambridgeshire, which, for the best part of 20 years, had a dome-headed bird silhouetted close to the trunk every time I passed at dusk.