Little owl

Latin name
Athene noctua

The Little owl is another Victorian introduction to Britain’s countryside and, much like the grey squirrel, it thrived. Today it’s a fairly common sight in woodland and pastureland throughout England, although it’s absent from most of Wales, the West Country and Scotland. Nonetheless, data from the Breeding Birds Survey suggest it may now be in decline, with an estimated decline of almost 65% in Britain since the late 1960s.

That which follows is a summary of Little owl natural history. The detailed article for this species will follow in due course.

A Little owl (Athene noctua) in a tree. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

The Little owl at a glance

Many subspecies described, but probably only eight have any validity. Athene noctua noctua found in Britain.

Size: Small owl standing only 23cm (9in) tall and with a tail up to 10cm (4in) long. Wings measure up to 20cm each. Weigh up to 260g (9 oz.).

Colour/Appearance: Flat pale grey-brown facial disc with prominent whitish eyebrows. Dark brown body heavily speckled with white, white streaks and spots on head and crown.

Distribution: Globally the Little owl’s range covers 84 countries of Europe, Asia and North Africa. This species was previously a vagrant to Britain, but was introduced into England during the 1870s and 1880s, initially in Kent and Northamptonshire from where they spread rapidly. They are now resident throughout most of England, barring the most northern parts; widespread throughout Wales but absent from Scotland and Ireland. RSPB estimate UK breeding population at 5,800 to 11,600 pairs.

Longevity: May reach 16 years old, although up to 70% may die in first year.

Sexing: Female calls higher-pitched and more nasal than that of males.

Activity: Active during the day and night (especially during the breeding season), although generally hunt at dawn and dusk. Nocturnal activity correlated to prey distribution. Usually spends daytime perching close to nest hole, on branches, fence posts, telegraph poles, barn roofs and rocks.

Territory/Habitat: Does well in most habitats. Preference for lowland mixed farmland with hedges and copses livestock (dung provides insect source). Also found in large gardens, parks, cemeteries and orchards. Often roosts/nests in barns and out-buildings. Territorial all year around; defend about 50ha (0.5 sq-km/one-fifth sq-mile) but range, which may overlap with neighbours, can be much larger and variable 2-127ha (up to 1.3 sq-km / half a sq-mile), average range is around 15ha (one-tenth sq-km / one-sixteenth sq-mile).

Diet: Varied diet including insects (especially beetles and grasshoppers), worms, small reptiles and amphibians, small birds (up to about blackbird-size) and small mammals; game and poultry chicks sometimes taken. Despite small size, may ‘have a go’ at prey larger than itself. Hedgehog, rabbit and bat remains found in pellets.

Reproduction: Nest usually hollow tree or in wall. Egg laying begins around April and 3-6 eggs laid at two-day intervals. Female incubates eggs for around 30 days, fed by male. Female broods chicks for couple of weeks and they leave nest at about 4 weeks old; can make limited flights by about 6 weeks old and independent by 3 months old.

Behaviour and Sociality: Monogamous with long-term (4yr + ) pair bond; Defends territory through aggressive behaviour and singing with nasal ‘piping’.

Threats: Introduced to Britain by Victorians and now abundant although it’s considered to have ‘declining’ status across much of its range. Threats include habitat loss (land-use changes), pesticides (food reduction) and road traffic.

Little owl in detail


Fauna Britannica - by Stefan Buczacki
Hamlyn Publishing -- 2002 -- ISBN: 978-0600598671

Nick Baker’s British Wildlife: A month by month guide - by Nick Baker
New Holland Publishers -- 2003 -- ISBN: 978-1845171131

Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife - by Roger Lovegrove
Oxford Univesrity Press -- 2007 -- ISBN: 978-0199548156

Simon King’s Wildguide - by Simon King
BBC Books -- 1994 -- ISBN: 978-0563364962

The New Amateur Naturalist - by Nick Baker
HarperCollins Publishers -- 2004 -- ISBN: 978-0007157310

Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271