Sunday, 2 February 2014

Bird of the Week 1: Little Owl

Bright sunny afternoons in February can be a good time of the year to see sunbathing Little Owls. The winter months can be productive for good views of Little Owls because later in the year the sprouting leaves of their favourite tree can make the birds harder to spot, or obscure their plumage details from photographers. Little Owls are sedentary birds, generally not moving far from their summer breeding sites, and as this charismatic bird continues to decline, this tends to be in old gnarled trees or dilapidated buildings often close to livestock. Little Owls are attracted to the beetles, moths and other invertebrates, which feed on the droppings of sheep or cattle. However, worms are also a very popular prey item, and they have often been observed suddenly toppling over backwards when the force of their efforts to pull up a worm is unexpectedly successful.

Little Owl (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
According to Birds Britannica, Little Owls can take prey far larger than themselves including Lapwing, Woodpigeon, Cuckoo, Magpie and Moorhens, and mammals as big as Rabbits or rats. If you are lucky enough to see one chasing a prey item, you will be amazed that such an apparent aerodynamic impossibility seems to be able to fly after its victim with great ease. Only a flying brick seems less able to fly through the air. 
Near Pocklington taken February 2013
 2/2/14 (c) Margaret Richardson
 2/2/14 (c) Margaret Richardson
 A Less Expected Angle (c) 2014 Margaret Richardson
Little Owls were released onto a few aristocratic estates from the mid 18th-century, which weren't thought to be successful, but renewed attempts in the early 20th-century were far more rewarding, and the birds quickly spread, reaching as far north as the borders of Scotland. Fossil evidence shows that the Little Owl used to be a native of the UK, but they died out some time in antiquity. So, the Little Owls found a ready-made niche, where the birds didn't compete with any known native species, unlike the introduction of many non-native birds, which have gone on to cause severe problems with the ecosystem. 
Holderness (c) 2014 Chris Cox
As the name implies, the Little Owl is considerably smaller than the Barn, the Tawny, the Long-eared and Short-eared Owls. It is also much more darkly-plumaged than any of the other species. Although a Little Owl hunts largely during the hours of darkness, as well as at dawn and dusk, it isn't as nocturnal as the Long-eared or Tawny Owls, but it is seen during daylight even more than Barn Owls. Only the Short-eared Owl is seen during the daytime more than a Little Owl, and is therefore the most diurnal of the UK owls. 
Lying Low (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
The feathering on the heads of Little Owls have a curious aspect appearing almost like a pair of white eyebrows, which either make it look as though the birds are always frowning, or instead that they are perpetually surprised. So, this 'cross' expression, and the birds' habit of bobbing its head furiously up and down if you approach too closely lend them a rather comic air, which endears them to bird watchers and members of the public alike.  
Lying Low 2 (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
In East Yorkshire many rural villages hold at least one Little Owl, and some lucky ones have one at each exit! So, if you know a location which contains this charming and attractive species, now should be a good time to enjoy decent views as they pose in full afternoon sunlight before a cold February night takes over. Sometimes early morning sunshine can be productive too, as the owl warms itself after a freezing night searching for food.  
Lying Low 3 (c) 2014 Maggie Bruice
Will any of you be as lucky as Maggie who managed to photograph her local owl indulging in extremely bizarre behaviour. She posted her pictures on a forum asking what people thought was happening, answers ranged from suggestions that it was anting, sunbathing, playing dead, or even dying. However, one expert believes that the bird was simply having a snooze in a warm and relatively safe location. Happy Little Owl Hunting!  Please send the results of your experiences to me.


Reikibid said...

Really interesting and lively article, supported by some excellent photos. Thanks! I hope there will be another feature.

neil wilson said...

I agree - informative and interesting + , so yes, please, repeat with other birds

neil wilson said...

I agree - really informative and interesting, so please more!