Graham Appleton of the Thetford-based BTO wishes that owls had more road sense

Little owl (Picture: BTO/Jill Pakenham)
Little owl (Picture: BTO/Jill Pakenham)

When driving along a local lane a couple of years ago we spotted a little owl flapping on the side of the road, obviously having had too close an encounter with a car.

We stopped and rescued it, hoping that it had just been stunned by the blow. It was very calm as I assessed its injuries, staring at me with wonderful lemon eyes from beneath white eyebrows. Sadly, it was clear that it no longer had any control over its powerful feet, presumably because its back was broken, so I had to put it out of its misery. Centuries of evolution had prepared this bird to be a ruthless hunter of beetles but had not taught it to avoid fast-moving cars on narrow lanes.

Little owls are easiest to see in the late afternoon or evening. As shadows lengthen, they like to warm themselves in the sun, perhaps tucked away on the branch of an oak tree or on the roof of a farm building. If disturbed, you may see the bird fly away on rounded wings, disappearing into the shadows where it is camouflaged by its spotted brown plumage. Little owls patrol the bare ground around the edges of fields or in open crops such as sugar beet, hunting for beetles and worms.

At this time of the year an adult may well still be feeding a brood of three or four young owlets, newly emerged from a nest-hole in an old tree or perhaps a disused rabbit burrow.

Owls were popular long before the appearance of Hedwig the snowy owl in Harry Potter. As well as this rare Arctic visitor, there are six species of owl in the UK, ranging in size from eagle owls, which can weigh as much as 3kg and are about two feet tall, to the aptly-named little owl, somewhere in size between a blackbird and a collared dove. They vary in the degree to which they are nocturnal; eagle, tawny and long-eared owls are the least likely to be seen in daylight, while barn, short-eared and little owls quite often hunt in the afternoon or evening.

East Anglia is a stronghold for the little owl but I see fewer than I did 10 years ago, when a bird might occasionally call from the roof of our bungalow at night.

Presumably they used to benefit from set-aside schemes, which left fields crop-free during the chick-rearing season, and I cannot imagine that they have enjoyed recent colder winters and extended periods of snow-cover.

Let’s hope that any remaining local pairs have had a good breeding season and that a couple of their youngsters might set up home in our village once more.