12 little owl facts you need to know

Discover fascinating facts about this small non-native species. 

Little owl, Athene noctua, single bird on barn door

1. INVERTEBRATE PREY – mostly moths, beetles and earwigs – makes up the vast majority of little owls’ diet. But when a shower starts, the birds quickly switch to earthworms, and continue to bring these to the nest as long as it rains. With a relatively wide diet, their approach to hunting depends on prey availability.

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2. FENCE POSTS and walls are popular perches for little owls, from where they pounce on their prey. They can also be seen running along the ground in pursuit of ground beetles and small mammals.

3. A KEY ADAPTATION for little owls is an incredibly strong tarsus – there are even anecdotal reports of them successfully taking small rabbits.

4. EXCELLENT EYESIGHT is another little owl feature: their retinas have lots of rod cells for night vision, and enough cones for colour vision in daylight. Their retina cells are more like those of diurnal raptors than other owls, but by day their visual acuity is lower than diurnal raptors. This places them somewhere between night and day hunters.

5. SUPERB HEARING enables little owls to locate the rustles and squeaks of mice and voles with an accuracy of up to 99 per cent.

6. UNDULATING FLIGHT means little owls are often mistaken for mistle thrushes and green woodpeckers, which are of similar size and, like the owls, often occur in farmland and open grassy areas.

7. MARKINGS ON THE BACK of a little owl’s head are broad and pale, similar to those on the front, an adaptation to deter ambush attacks by other owls and sparrowhawks. Little owls are also predated by foxes, badgers and other raptors.

8. FAT RESERVES are proportionately greater than in barn owls, so little owls are better able to cope with cold weather. But prolonged snow is a major cause of mortality for both first-year owls and adults.

9. VOCALISATIONS by little owls can resonate several kilometres on a still night. Adult little owls can make over 20 different vocalisations, including their shrill ‘goooek, goooek’ and ‘kweew, kweew’ sounding calls.

10. IMPORTANT HABITATS for little owls are rural villages, parkland and lowland farmland. The birds often choose a territory with some short and rough grasslands, hedgerows, mature trees and old farm buildings. 

11. MANY LITTLE OWLS in the UK are thought to originate from introductions in Kent and Northamptonshire during the late 19th century. 

12. YOU CAN HELP little owls by installing a nest box close to a sighting, reporting your sightings to the UK Little Owl Project and sending your nest records to the BTO

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The UK Little Owl Project is dedicated to UK little owl research and conservation. It was established by Emily Joáchim in 2015 with the kind assistance of Andy Rouse Wildlife Photography.