The Enchanting World of Little Owls



Little Owls

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Among the avian world’s most captivating members, little owls stand out not for their size, but for their immense character. These pint-sized raptors, with their rounded bodies and bright, inquisitive eyes, have been subjects of fascination and affection across different cultures.

Join us as we delve into the intriguing world of these diminutive nocturnal wonders.

Basic Facts about Little Owls:

  1. Scientific Name: The scientific name for the little owl is Athene noctua.
  2. Size: Typically, they measure about 22 cm (8.7 inches) in length with a wingspan ranging from 54 to 58 cm (21 to 23 inches).
  3. Weight: Little owls weigh approximately 180 grams, roughly equivalent to a tennis ball.

Physical Characteristics:

  1. Appearance: These owls have a mottled brown and white plumage which offers excellent camouflage against tree bark and rocks. They’re recognized by their rounded head, short tail, and stout body.
  2. Eyes: Little owls possess striking yellow eyes that stand out against their muted feathers.
  3. Voice: Their call is a series of sharp, repetitive “kiew, kiew” sounds.

Habitat and Distribution:

  1. Range: They are found across Europe, Asia, and parts of North Africa.
  2. Preferred Habitats: Little owls favor open habitats like farmlands, orchards, and grasslands with scattered trees and hedges.

Diet and Hunting:

  1. Diet: Their primary diet includes insects, worms, spiders, and small mammals and birds.
  2. Hunting Technique: Unlike many owls, little owls can be diurnal, often hunting during dusk or dawn and occasionally during the day.

Breeding and Lifecycle:

  1. Nesting: They often nest in cavities, either natural ones in trees or those made by other birds, like woodpeckers.
  2. Eggs: A typical clutch consists of 3-5 white eggs, which are incubated mainly by the female.
  3. Fledglings: Young little owls leave the nest after about a month, though they’re still dependent on their parents for food for a few more weeks.

Cultural Significance:

The little owl holds a special place in human culture. In Ancient Greece, it was associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and even adorned Greek coins. This owl’s association with wisdom has persisted through time and across civilizations.


Little Owls are highly sedentary birds with a strong sense of territory. During the breeding season, they become particularly vocal, using a range of vocalizations to communicate.

You may hear their plaintive “kew kew” call or their loud “wherrow” call, repeated at regular intervals. Males are especially noisy during this time.

The size of their territory varies throughout the year, with the largest territories observed prior to the breeding season, covering nearly 40 hectares in the UK. As they begin to breed and provision young, their territory size reduces to as little as 2 hectares.

These petite predators, Little Owls, have a character that belies their size. While navigating the world of owls, the haunting call of the Tawny Owls and the distinct features of the Eastern Screech Owls are must-knows. For those drawn to the more uncommon species, the Elusive Owls offers a deep dive. For a holistic introduction to these birds of the night, our Guide to Owls is invaluable.

Diet and Hunting Patterns

Little Owls primarily feed on crickets, grasshoppers, and other invertebrates such as beetles and earthworms. They also consume small mammals and, during the breeding season, small birds.

These owls are most active at dawn, dusk, and after dark when they do most of their hunting. However, they can often be seen during the middle of the day, basking in the sun on exposed perches like telegraph poles, dead trees, or isolated buildings.

Rather than hunting while flying, Little Owls usually hunt from a perch, commonly a fence post. They have a unique hunting behavior where they bob up and down a few times upon spotting their prey before taking a short, low, undulating flight to the ground where they sometimes pursue their prey on foot.

Their ability to blend into farmland environments makes them easily overlooked while perched on posts.

Little Owls are most active during the early morning and late evening hours when they are hunting. They tend to be sedentary during the day but can still be observed in their territories. They are found in a variety of habitats but tend to thrive in areas of mixed farmland.

They have a preference for open wooded areas such as old orchards, although they are not woodland birds. In the UK, tree holes are the most common natural nesting sites for Little Owls. They also readily accept man-made nest boxes.

These owls are faithful to their nest sites and will return year after year if both members of the pair survive.


Little Owls were introduced into England in the late 1800s. From there, they quickly spread throughout the country, and by the 1920s, they could be found in Scotland and Wales.

Despite being absent from Ireland, Little Owls have established themselves as a widespread and common species throughout Europe. They can be found eastwards through the Middle East to Central Asia and as far south as North Africa.

While Little Owls experienced success and expansion after their introduction in the UK, they have since faced a decline in both their range and population. Between 1995 and 2010, there was an estimated 40% decline in Little Owl populations, particularly in the western part of their range.

They are now considered scarce in Wales and the western counties of Cheshire, Devon, and Cornwall. The reasons for this decline are not fully understood, but food availability and weather conditions, such as cold and wet weather, are believed to be significant influences on nesting success.


Food availability and prevailing weather conditions are two key factors that influence the nesting success of Little Owls. When there is a lack of suitable prey or when weather conditions are unfavorable, such as during periods of cold and wet weather, nesting success can be negatively impacted.

As the Climate Crisis continues to affect ecosystems, addressing the root causes of this crisis is crucial for the long-term conservation of Little Owls and other species.

Creating prey-rich habitats is a practical conservation measure for areas where Little Owls are still found. Managing land for diversity can help attract and support the prey species that form a significant part of the owls’ diet.

This can involve managing some areas for rough grassland and others for short grass, including areas with bare ground. Planting arable crops, particularly unharvested wild bird mixes, can provide additional food sources for small mammals and birds that Little Owls prey upon.

Orchards that are not extensively harvested can also attract invertebrates and small birds, creating more favorable hunting grounds for Little Owls. It is important to avoid the use of pesticides, as these can harm the invertebrates that form a vital part of the owls’ diet.

The installation of Little Owl nestboxes can compensate for the lack of natural nest cavities, especially in areas where mature trees are scarce.

Population and Statistics

Currently, there are approximately 6,000 pairs of Little Owls in Britain. This population represents the result of their successful introduction in the late 1800s, their subsequent spread throughout the country, and their recent decline in numbers.

Little Owls have a widespread distribution throughout the UK and Europe. However, their population and range have seen significant changes over the years. While they were once found in Scotland and Wales, they are now scarce in these areas. The decline in their range and population has been observed primarily in the western part of their UK range, including Wales and the counties of Cheshire, Devon, and Cornwall.

Physical Characteristics


The Little Owl, the UK’s smallest bird of prey, has distinctive physical characteristics that set it apart from other bird species. It has brown upper parts covered in white spots, giving it a speckled appearance. Its underparts are white with heavy brown streaking. One of the most noticeable features of the Little Owl is its prominent white eyebrows, which add to its charm. It also has large yellow eyes that are striking against its brown feathers. Completing its unique look is its yellow bill, adding a touch of brightness to its facial features. Overall, the Little Owl has a compact and charming appearance that makes it easily recognizable.

Distinctive Features

The Little Owl’s distinctive features make it stand out among other birds. Its most notable feature is its prominent white eyebrows, which give it a somewhat surprised expression. These white eyebrows highlight its expressive and captivating eyes, which are large and yellow. The combination of its white eyebrows and large yellow eyes creates a unique and endearing look. Additionally, the Little Owl’s compact size and rounded shape contribute to its distinct appearance. Its small stature and distinctive facial features make it a delightful bird to observe.

Size and Weight

While the Little Owl is smaller than a Blackbird, it weighs twice as much. This size and weight combination gives the Little Owl a sturdy and robust appearance despite its small size. On average, adult Little Owls measure around 21-27 centimeters in length, with a wingspan of approximately 56-61 centimeters. As for their weight, it typically ranges from 180-200 grams. Despite their petite stature, Little Owls have proven that size doesn’t always determine strength.

Habitat and Nesting

Preferred Habitats

Little Owls thrive in open habitats, making farmland and old orchards their preferred environments. These open habitats provide the Little Owl with abundant opportunities for hunting and nesting. With farmland comprising a significant portion of the UK’s landscape, Little Owls have ample space to establish their homes and find their main food sources. Additionally, old orchards offer a suitable environment for nesting, with the availability of tree holes for their breeding activities. The combination of farmland and old orchards creates an ideal habitat for Little Owls to flourish and thrive.

Nesting Behavior

Little Owls exhibit interesting nesting behaviors that contribute to their survival and breeding success. They nest in tree holes, utilizing existing cavities or abandoned nests. These tree holes serve as safe and secure locations for their eggs and nestlings. Little Owls are known to be opportunistic nesters, making use of whatever suitable cavities are available to them. It is not uncommon to find them nesting in man-made structures such as barns and buildings. Their adaptability when it comes to finding nesting sites is a testament to their ability to cope with changing environments.


Male Song

Little Owls are vocal birds, and the male produces a distinct and attention-grabbing song. Their song is a loud and mellow hoot that can carry over long distances. When the male Little Owl sings, it can be a remarkable experience. Their hoots often serve as territorial calls, signaling to other birds that the area is already claimed. The male’s song is not only a means of communication but also a way to attract a mate and establish their presence in their habitat. The unique sound of the male Little Owl’s hoot adds to the charm and mystique of these fascinating birds.


Aside from their vocalizations, Little Owls communicate through various visual cues and behaviors. They use body language to convey messages to other birds, such as displaying dominance or defending their territory. Little Owls may bob their heads or puff out their feathers as part of their communication repertoire. These visual cues add another layer of interaction and understanding among Little Owls and contribute to their overall social dynamics. The combination of vocalizations and visual communication ensures effective communication within the Little Owl community.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Main Food Sources

Little Owls have diversified diets, with their main food sources consisting of insects and other invertebrates. They prey on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, grasshoppers, and earthworms. These small creatures provide a steady food supply for Little Owls throughout the year. Additionally, they also feed on small mammals such as voles and shrews. Little Owls have adapted to their environment and are skilled hunters, ensuring a sufficient and varied diet to sustain their energy needs.

Prey Selection

When it comes to prey selection, Little Owls are opportunistic hunters. They have the ability to adapt and target a range of small creatures based on availability and abundance. This adaptability contributes to their survival and reproductive success. While their primary diet consists of insects and invertebrates, they are not limited to these food sources. Little Owls have been observed preying on rodents and small birds when the opportunity arises. Their flexible prey selection ensures they can find sustenance regardless of changes in the environment or food availability.

Introduction to the UK

Timeline of Introduction

The Little Owl is not native to the UK but was introduced over a century ago. The timeline of the Little Owl’s introduction can be traced back to the 1870s. At that time, a few pairs of Little Owls were brought to the UK from Germany to be released into the wild. This initial introduction marked the beginning of the Little Owls’ presence on British soil. Over time, the population expanded, and Little Owls became established in various regions across the country. Their successful introduction demonstrates the adaptability and resilience of these birds.

Reasons for Introduction

The introduction of Little Owls to the UK was primarily driven by a desire to control small mammal populations. Farmers and landowners saw the potential of Little Owls as effective natural control for pests such as voles and shrews, which could cause damage to crops and vegetation. Little Owls proved to be skilled hunters, helping to keep these populations in check. This natural pest control function, combined with their charming appearance and charismatic behaviors, made Little Owls an appealing addition to the UK’s biodiversity.

Population Decline

Current Population

Despite their successful introduction, Little Owls have experienced a significant decline in population in recent years. The latest estimates suggest that there are currently around 3,600 pairs of Little Owls remaining in the UK. This decline in population is concerning and calls for further attention and conservation efforts to protect these charismatic birds. Monitoring and tracking the population size is crucial to assess the effectiveness of conservation initiatives and to ensure the long-term survival of Little Owls in the UK.

Factors Contributing to Decline

Several factors have contributed to the decline in the population of Little Owls in the UK. Changes in agricultural practices, such as the intensification of farming and a decrease in traditional farming methods, have had a negative impact on Little Owls’ preferred habitats and food sources. Loss of suitable nesting sites, as old orchards and tree holes become scarcer due to land use changes, also poses a threat to their reproductive success. Climate change and its associated effects, such as shifts in prey availability and increased extreme weather events, further challenge the survival of Little Owls. These factors combined have resulted in a decline in the Little Owl population in the UK.

Conservation Efforts

Protective Measures

To mitigate the decline in the population of Little Owls, various protective measures have been implemented. Conservation organizations and government agencies are working tirelessly to raise awareness about the importance of preserving Little Owls’ habitats and promoting sustainable farming practices. These measures include implementing agri-environment schemes that provide incentives for farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices that benefit Little Owls. Additionally, farmers are encouraged to create suitable nesting sites and maintain areas of rough grassland to support the Little Owls’ prey populations. By implementing these protective measures, conservationists aim to halt the decline and restore the population of Little Owls in the UK.

Preserving Suitable Habitats

Preserving suitable habitats is crucial for the conservation of Little Owls. Efforts are being made to protect and restore farmlands and old orchards, ensuring the availability of open habitats favored by Little Owls. This includes creating wildlife-friendly corridors, maintaining hedgerows, and promoting the planting of native tree species. Furthermore, conservation organizations are collaborating with landowners, farmers, and local communities to raise awareness and encourage the preservation of suitable habitats. By working together, these stakeholders can contribute to the conservation of the Little Owl and its habitat, ensuring a sustainable future for these captivating birds in the UK.

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