The little owl (Athene noctua) is a small, grey-brown owl with white spots and streaks, and a distinctive flat-topped head and yellow eyes. This owl is widespread across Europe, Asia and North Africa, and was first introduced to Britain at the end of the 19th century, and into New Zealand in the early 20th century.
The little owl typically inhabits open fields, grasslands and open woodlands, where it has access to insects, earthworms, other invertebrates and small vertebrates that it feeds on. Because the little owl is so widespread and such a common species of bird, its population is not considered to be threatened or endangered.
Little Owl Characteristics
As their name suggests, the little owl is a small owl, usually measuring between 21 and 23 cm. They weigh between 160 and 205 g and have a wingspan of 56 cm, with females generally being slightly larger than males.
They have a flat-topped head, and a plump, compact body. Their facial disk is flattened above the eyes, which makes them look like they are frowning! Little owls also have yellow eyes and fairly long legs.
The little owl is mostly dark brown in colour, with white spots and streaks on its breast and abdomen. The back and tail have round spots, and it has a cream chin.
Little owls also have cream marks on their forehead and crown, cream rings around the eyes, and a distinctive V-shape mark on the back of the head, that helps to ward off predators.
Juvenile little owls are duller in colour and do not have white spots on their crown.
Little Owl Location And Habitat
The little owl is found across Europe and Asia, from the Iberian Peninsula and Denmark eastwards to China and southwards to the Himalayas. It is also found in North Africa, from Mauritania to Egypt, the Red Sea and Arabia.
In the 19th century, the little owl was introduced to United Kingdom. It has now spread across much of England and Wales. In the 20th century, the bird was introduced to New Zealand, in the South Island.
The little owl can survive in a variety of different habitats, although is normally found near to open hunting grounds. This means it is often found near open woodlands, open fields and grasslands. This owl is also adaptable to dry climates, so can be found near deserts, too. In certain areas, the little owl resides near humans, on farmlands and in orchards, and in villages and urban buildings.
What Does The Little Owl Eat?
The little owl is an opportunistic carnivore and feeds on small rodents and large invertebrates, such as earthworms. Some of its most common prey are beetles, earthworms, crickets and grasshoppers. However, it will also eat mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, molluscs and crustaceans.
Little owls hunt primarily at night or dusk, and hunt for their food in a few different ways, depending on the type of prey they are hunting. They often sit and wait to catch their prey, perched high up to observe the ground. They will also run and hop along the ground to catch prey, or will fly low to the ground.
Little owls can also catch their prey while flying in the air, and have even been known to catch prey as heavy as themselves!
Little Owl Behaviour
The little owl is a partly diurnal animal. While it hunts at dusk and after dark, it can be seen during the day. They often perch in areas with human activity and will remain on their perch when humans are around, unfazed by them.
These birds can also be vocal during the day, and the little owl is known to have between 22 and 40 different calls. These calls are used to protect their territory from predators, communicate with others, and to attract mates.
The mating season for these birds is between early February and late May. Little owls are monogamous and often remain together until one partner dies. Once these owls have formed a bonded pair, the male selects potential nests within his territory. He will then show the female the potential nest sites until she picks one.
The female lays a clutch of between two to eight eggs (on average five), and the eggs are white and measure between 35.5 by 29.5 mm (1.40 by 1.16 in). The female incubates the eggs for twenty-eight to twenty-nine days, during which time the male brings her food.
Once hatched, the owlets are looked after by the female, while the male brings food for her to feed them. The newly hatched owlets weigh between 10 to 12 g. As the owlets get older, both parents feed the young.
At around seven weeks, the owlets are ready to leave the nest, and they learn to fly up to two weeks later. They become adults at around 7 to 8 months of age and become sexually mature at 1 year old.
Little owls often stay close to their place of birth for the duration of their life, sometimes less than 20 kilometres away. They are territorial birds, with males remaining in and defending one territory for life.
The biggest predators of little owls are other, larger birds. These include tawny owls, eagle owls, long-eared owls, peregrine falcons, tawny eagles, magpies, red kites, buzzards, pine martens and stone martens. The young are preyed on by foxes, hedgehogs, stoats, brown rats and domestic cats and dogs.
Despite having many natural predators, little owls do have ways to protect themselves. They use special calls to ward off predators as well as to warn others. They’re also excellent at camouflaging themselves while they sleep.
The little owl has a lifespan of around 16 years, although the average age that these birds live to is only 3 years. Many birds do not reach maturity, either being preyed on as young or due to lack of food. Other causes of death include being killed by cars, or harsh winters.
Fascinating Facts About The Little Owl
- There are thirteen subspecies of the little owl that are recognised.
- Little owls like to take dust or sand baths. They have also been spotted bathing in smoke rising from chimneys.
- Little owls are able to camouflage themselves almost completely in their habitat when sleeping.
- When sleeping, little owls close their eyes by raising their lower eyelids.
- Little owls actually have a very poor eyesight and can only see certain colours, despite being a bird of prey. The colours they can see are yellow, green, blue and red.
- The V-shaped marking on the back of the little owl’s head mimics eyes, which helps to protect them from predators behind.
- It has been estimated that the world population of the little owl may be between 5 million and 15 million!