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 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
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
Little Owls are a vocal species, particularly in the late winter and spring leading up to the breeding season.
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 www.xeno-canto.org/611865.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
The little owl is also known as the owl of Minerva, and the owl of Athena.
Little Owls are fierce hunters, although their small size makes them vulnerable to larger predators.
Most Little Owls live for about three years, although the oldest recorded specimen lived for well-over thirteen years.
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.
Little Owls in the United Kingdom are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
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 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.
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.
Little Owls lay three or four matte white eggs, each measuring approximately 34 millimetres long and millimetres wide.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
Known collective nouns for a group of Little Owls are as follows:
General collective nouns for a group of Owls may also be used:
Owl of Athena, Owl of Minerva
21cm to 23cm
54cm to 58cm
140g to 220g
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
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