Little Owl

Athene noctua

The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.

Little Owl

Little Owl

Close up of a Little Owl in flight

Close up of a Little Owl in flight

Three young juvenile Little Owls perched on a branch together

Three young juvenile Little Owls perched on a branch together

Little Owl looking down from a tree branch

Little Owl looking down from a tree branch

Appearance & Identification

What do Little Owls look like

Little Owls have brown upper parts covered in white spots and white underparts with heavy brown streaking. They have a grumpy look, with prominent white ‘eyebrows’, large yellow eyes, and a yellow bill. These owls have rounded faces and lack the facial disc of other species like the Barn Owl.

Females are very similar to males, although they grow slightly larger. The fluffy juveniles are paler than adults and have buff-coloured spots and plain brown crowns.

The Little Owl is a distinctive bird, unlikely to be confused with any other in the UK. However, their dipping and undulating flight resembles that of Woodpeckers and the Mistle Thrush.

Close up of a Little Owl on a post

Close up of a Little Owl on a post

How big are Little Owls?

The smallest owl in the UK, these compact birds are shorter than a Blackbird but weigh twice as much.


Little Owls have a body length of 21 to 23 centimetres. They are stocky birds with short tails but long, well-developed legs.


Most adult Little Owls weigh 140 to 220 grams. Males are generally lighter than females, although there is some size overlap.


The Little Owl has a large wingspan relative to its body length. Most adults measure 54 to 58 centimetres between wingtips.

A pair of Little Owls

A pair of Little Owls

Calls & Sounds

Little Owls are a vocal species, particularly in the late winter and spring leading up to the breeding season.

What sound does a Little Owl make?

The male Little Owl produces a loud, mellow hoot that can be heard from a great distance. This ‘Weeu’ note is repeated several times and may be heard in the day or night. They also produce a high-pitched, rather frantic cackling alarm call when excited or threatened.

Simon Elliott, XC611865. Accessible at

Did you know?

It has been shown that the little owl can recognise familiar birds by voice.


The Little Owl is capable of tackling relatively large prey, although invertebrates form the bulk of their diet. Continue reading to learn about the Little Owl diet in the UK.

What do Little Owls eat?

Little Owls are carnivores with a varied diet. Most of their prey are insects and other invertebrates like earthworms, although they will take larger animals like rodents and small birds.

They hunt by watching for movement on the ground and swooping down to catch their victim. Larger prey, like rodents, are caught in their talons, but insects are taken with the bill.

What do baby Little Owls eat?

Both parents feed the young, although the male provides all the food for the first two weeks while the female is brooding the chicks. The young birds fledge after about a month and rely on their parents for another month before gaining independence.

Perched Little Owl with a worm in its beak

Perched Little Owl with a worm in its beak

Habitat & Distribution

Little Owls are most at home in human-altered landscapes in the United Kingdom, although their range has contracted somewhat. Keep reading to learn where to find the UK’s smallest owl species.

What is the habitat of a Little Owl?

Little Owls prefer open habitats like mixed farmland and old orchards. Abandoned buildings, hedges, and small copses of trees create ideal hunting grounds, and they avoid dense woodlands or forests.

What is the range of a Little Owl?

The Little Owl is widespread in England, although largely absent from the southwest. They have a scattered and patchy distribution in Wales and occur only in the extreme south of Scotland. Elsewhere, they are widespread in Europe, Asia, and North Africa and were introduced to New Zealand.

Where do Little Owls live?

Little Owls spend most of their time perched and watching for movement below. They may run along the ground in pursuit of their prey, but they usually perch higher up on posts, rocks, and trees. These birds shelter and nest in natural and artificial cavities.

Little Owl in flight

Little Owl in flight

How rare are Little Owls?

Little Owl numbers have dropped considerably in the United Kingdom. They are still common in prime habitats, although they have become scarce in the West. The total population is estimated at just 3600 pairs.

Where can you see Little Owls in the UK?

Little Owls are most common in Northern England, East Anglia, and the Midlands, particularly around pasture farmland with old derelict buildings and trees that provide nesting cavities. Look for them perched prominently on roofs, poles, and large trees.

Signs and spotting tips

The little owl often takes up a squat posture when alarmed, bobbing in excitement. Its flight is fast and has bounding undulations, similar to a woodpecker. It can be hard to spot, as it flies close to the ground before swooping upwards to perch.

They nest in tree holes and one parent can often be seen on sentry duty near the nest.

Little Owl peering out of a tree

Little Owl peering out of a tree

Did you know?

The little owl is also known as the owl of Minerva, and the owl of Athena.

Lifespan & Predation

Little Owls are fierce hunters, although their small size makes them vulnerable to larger predators.

How long do Little Owls live?

Most Little Owls live for about three years, although the oldest recorded specimen lived for well-over thirteen years.

What are the predators of Little Owls?

Little Owls may fall prey to diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey, such as Sparrowhawks, Long-eared Owls, and Tawny Owls. Mammalian carnivores like foxes and cats would also eat these small birds when possible.

Are Little Owls protected?

Little Owls in the United Kingdom are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Are Little Owls endangered?

Little Owls are a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List with a stable population trend. However, they have declined drastically (nearly 80%) since the 1960s in the United Kingdom.

Little Owl in its natural habitat

Little Owl in its natural habitat

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Little Owls nest?

Little Owls are cavity nesters that will use both natural and artificial sites to raise their young. Most pairs use natural tree holes, but roofs, hay stacks, and nest boxes are also popular choices.

When do Little Owls nest?

Little Owls nest in the spring and early summer, laying their first clutch of eggs between early April and early May. Incubation takes approximately one month, and the young birds fledge the nest about a month later. They rarely have a second brood in the United Kingdom.

What do Little Owl eggs look like?

Little Owls lay three or four matte white eggs, each measuring approximately 34 millimetres long and millimetres wide.

Do Little Owls mate for life?

Little Owls are monogamous in a relatively strict sense. Pairs rarely ‘cheat’ and may remain together throughout the year and perhaps even throughout their lives. However, single birds will seek a new mate if their partner dies.

Three Little Owl chicks looking out of the nesting cavity

Three Little Owl chicks looking out of the nesting cavity


Are Little Owls aggressive?

Little Owls are highly territorial and will behave aggressively toward other Little Owls in their territory. They begin by calling loudly and resort to attacking with their talons if the intruder does not get the message.

Are Little Owls nocturnal?

Little Owls are mainly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and nocturnal, although they are often seen during the day. They are naturally shy birds, but individuals that live near people are often bold and may allow good sightings.

Little owl feeding on an insect

Little owl feeding on an insect


Little Owls can be seen throughout the year if you locate an active territory. Continue reading to learn about their movements and history in the United Kingdom.

Do Little Owls migrate?

Little Owls do not migrate, which may explain why the species never colonised the British Isles on their own. These birds remain within their territories throughout the year, and their young tend to disperse relatively short distances.

Are Little Owls native to the UK?

Little Owls are not native to the United Kingdom. Early sightings in the 1700s may have been imports or vagrants from Mainland Europe, although they were undoubtedly brought over in the 1800s.

The successful introduction of the modern-day population happened in the 1870s when they were released in Kent and Northamptonshire.

Little Owl perched under a roof

Little Owl perched under a roof


Can you have a Little Owl as a pet in the UK?

It is legal to keep Little Owls as pets in the United Kingdom. However, the bird must be legitimately captive-bred and may not be released into the wild. Keeping a captive owl requires careful planning, resources and commitment and is not recommended for anyone but the most dedicated and experienced bird enthusiasts.

What is a group of Little Owls called?

Known collective nouns for a group of Little Owls are as follows:

  • a volery of little owls

General collective nouns for a group of Owls may also be used:

  • a bazaar of owls
  • a brood of owls
  • a diss of owls
  • an eyrie of owls
  • a glaring of owls
  • a hooting of owls
  • a looming of owls
  • a nest of owls
  • a pair of owls
  • a parliament of owls
  • a sagaciousness of owls
  • a silence of owls (when in flight)
  • a stare of owls
  • a stooping of owls
  • a wisdom of owls

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Athene noctua

Other names:

Owl of Athena, Owl of Minerva



Conservation status:




21cm to 23cm


54cm to 58cm


140g to 220g

Learn more about the Little Owl

Similar birds to a Little Owl

Other birds in the Owls family

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