Little Owl

The Little Owl is small and unbelievably cute. It looks like a bump on a branch when perched in the daylight. It is so well camouflaged that you can be looking straight at it and not see it. Little Owls like farmland, orchards, parkland, and even hilly countryside. They were introduced into Britain about 100 years ago though they are widespread in Europe where they are also known as the 'Owl of Minerva'. All very Ancient Greek.

The Little Owl is the size of a fluffed up starling, looking like a cuddly toy. It has a brown back spotted with white, pale streaked underparts, and a flat looking head. On its face it has pale eyebrows over large yellow eyes, a hooked yellow bill, and a fierce grumpy expression. It bobs up and down when curious or alarmed. They fly close to the ground with an undulating style of flight. Their call is "kiew kiew", sounding very like a little yapping dog.

Little Owls hunt at dusk, after dark or around dawn, often from a favourite perch. They feed on insects, small mammals, small birds, and worms. They will also hunt on the ground, hopping or running to catch things on their rather long legs.

Just like wise owl, they nest in holes. Deciduous trees are their preferred sites though buildings, rock faces, and, at a push, rabbit burrows will do. In April, mum lays the 2-5 eggs (though usually 3 or 4) and incubates them until they hatch 28 days later. She alone looks after them for the first two weeks. Dad then joins in to help. Their breeding success is linked to the availability of small mammals as the youngsters need a lot of feeding. Before they are able to fly, the young owls clamber out onto a branch and explore round the nest site. They can eventually fly after 32 days. You will hear their territorial calling during autumn when the youngsters leave and search for their own places to live. Little Owls will often use the same hole year after year, some being in use for 25 years!

The Little Owl is resident and found in Central and Southern Britain, and Southern Scotland. They are territorial with the male normally remaining in one territory for all his life. If another male intrudes into his territory, he approaches the intruder and shouts his territorial call. If the intruder persists, he then flies at him aggressively. If this is unsuccessful, he will repeat the attack, this time trying to make contact with his sharp claws. There are about 6,000 Little Owl territories altogether in Britain, though this fluctuates. Currently their population is in decline, both here and elsewhere in Europe. Studies are needed to understand why.

Their Latin name is 'athene noctua' which comes from the Greek goddess 'Athena' (called Minerva by the Romans) and the Latin 'noctua' for 'night bird'. Athena's/Minerva's night owl. A Little Owl with an olive branch appears on a Greek tetradrachm coin from 500 BC (a copy of which appears on the modern Greek one-euro coin). There is a 5th-century B.C. bronze statue of Athena holding a Little Owl in her hand. The call of a Little Owl was thought to have heralded the murder of Julius Caesar so in Roman folklore they are the harbingers of death. Not bad for something so small and cute.

Barn Owl

The Barn Owl is the most widely distributed species of owl and one of the most widespread of all birds, though you wouldn't know it as it mainly hunts early evening and at night when you are in bed. It is a midnight ninja assassin, gliding silently on stealth wings. You may be lucky and see one during the day in the winter or after a lot of bad weather when it has to hunt in daylight for food. The Barn Owl can't hunt when it is raining.

The Barn Owl is the white owl of farmland and the countryside. It is a pale, sandy, golden buff colour above, white underneath and has dark bars on the wings. The face is heart-shaped with black killer eyes. Female Barn Owls are typically darker than males and have more speckling on their flanks and underwing. The Barn Owl's face shape helps it direct sound to its ears so it can pinpoint its prey at night. The wings have a soft fringe along the outside of the flight feathers so they are silent when flying and the owl can swoop down on their prey unannounced. The Barn Owl flies slow and low over the ground and will frequently hover before diving into grass onto some helpless victim. They are not particularly vocal. A drawn out screech made by the male is only likely to be heard during the early stages of the breeding season. It sounds a bit like a baby being strangled.

The Barn Owl feeds on small mammals like mice, voles, shrews, and small rats. They like places with areas of rough grassland and woodland edge, where there are lots of field voles to be found (their favourite food). The availability of food shapes their breeding behaviour. They may not have young when the small mammal population is at a low. During courtship the male feeds the female lots of juicy voles before she becomes interested. Like most girls, she enjoys being taken out on a dinner date.

The Barn Owl nests in very large holes within mature trees, on the ledges found in old agricultural buildings, or in owl boxes. Over 25% of the breeding population now uses owl boxes as many old barns have been lost to barn conversions. They lay 4-7 eggs at 2-day intervals which each hatch after 30 days. The resulting brood of chicks can vary in age by as much as two weeks! They do this to increase the chances of at least some chicks surviving if food availability becomes low during the chick rearing period; the oldest and largest chicks will receive food first, at the expense of the last of the brood. The youngsters can fly after 50 days and depend on mum and dad for a further 5 weeks before they disperse to find their own territories. Despite the long child rearing period, Barn Owls often have two broods.

There are 4000 pairs in Britain. Populations have recovered somewhat from an earlier period of decline and have benefited from the erection of nest boxes and habitat management. Their Latin name is 'tyto alba' which literally means 'white owl' from the Greek 'tyto' for an owl and Latin 'alba' for 'white'. Barn Owls are known by many different nicknames including 'ghost owl', 'church owl' and 'screech owl'.

Tawny Owl

The Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in Britain and can be found anywhere there are old trees in which to nest, including towns. They are the silent assassins being noiseless when flying. In myths, the Tawny Owl is often associated with bad luck and death. It is featured on the soundtracks of horror movies with its spooky "twit-hoo-woo" call. Things are not looking good for you if a Tawny Owl calls your name.

The Tawny is a plump woodland owl the size of a Wood Pigeon. It is mottled brown with softly streaked feathers. The under parts are slightly paler. The wings are broad, and there is a short, rounded tail. The face is surrounded by a ring of dark feathers and has dark eyes which look friendly and wise. The female is a little larger than the male. The Tawny rarely flies in daylight. Their flight is fast, direct, and deadly silent. By day it roosts in holes close to the trunk of a tree or in ivy. The Tawny is remarkably difficult to see as their camouflage is so good. In addition to the owl call we all know, there is also a loud, sharp "kewick!" contact call.

Tawny Owls feed on insects and worms, small animals like voles, mice and shrews, and small birds silly enough to be out at night. They rely on knowing their hunting territory very well ('the knowledge') and will check each part every night. Their excellent vision, well-developed hearing, and silent flight are perfect for nighttime hunting.

The Tawny Owl nests in holes in trees with "owl" carved above them or in specially made owl nest boxes. Tawny Owls will defend their nest aggressively, even attacking human intruders, so stay clear. Nesting starts in February-March. The 2-5 eggs hatch after 28 days. The flightless young owlets leave the nest at 25 days and sit on a branch looking cute until they can fly a week later. For the first 3 weeks mum looks after the kids while dad does all the hunting. Once they are school aged, both parents will hunt leaving the kids at home. The youngsters depend on their parents for 3 months as owl schooling is tough.

There are about 40,000 resident Tawny Owl pairs in Britain, with established pairs keeping to the same territory. Young birds disperse in autumn to find their own patch, which is when they are most vulnerable. Many young birds starve when they cannot find a vacant territory once parental care has ceased. With the reduction in pesticides, Tawny's are doing well. The oldest ringed owl lived to 23 and was very wise. Their Latin name is 'strix aluco' from the Greek 'strix' for 'owl' and the Italian 'allocco' for 'tawny owl'.