The little owl

David Chapman / 29 July 2013

The little owl is small in stature but full of charisma, writes David Chapman.

It is a bird which is frequently seen around houses and gardens in some parts of the country but is currently suffering a serious decline in population.

The little owl is very small it stands about six inches tall, which makes it about half the height of a tawny owl. It has an endearing habit of bobbing its head particularly when agitated and, like all owls, will tend to keep its body still whilst rotating and twisting its head to face in any direction. Unlike most owls, it is partly diurnal meaning that it can be seen during daylight hours though it is definitely more active around dusk and dawn when it feeds on worms, beetles and other insects, occasionally taking small birds or reptiles.

In flight the little owl resembles a woodpecker because its flight pattern is undulating and, like a woodpecker, the little owl often nests in tree holes, though it will also nest in buildings and holes in walls. Typically, little owls like open countryside such as mixed farmland and parkland though large gardens are used. They are commonest in the south east of England with a good population in the Midlands and Welsh Marches and a scattering of birds across the rest of England and Wales.

The recent trend in the population of the little owl gives cause for concern.  One census suggests its UK population declined by 46% between 1967 and 2007 another suggests a 24% decline between 1995 and 2008. Studies into the nesting success, and survival, of our little owls have been very limited and have therefore revealed little helpful data.

There is one quite significant fact about the little owl which almost seems to be have been forgotten but which is quite significant in terms of its conservation status in Britain. The little owl is not a native British species. It was introduced in the middle of the 19th century to several parts of the UK by enthusiasts.  The introductions were generally successful, the British population grew rapidly and the little owl was soon widely accepted as a British bird. The fact that it is a non-native means the little owl is not even given a conservation status in this country and, as a result, little is being done to help its plight.
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