Little owl numbers are on the wane

Little Owl - Athene noctua. John Proudlock/BTO
Little Owl - Athene noctua. John Proudlock/BTO
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Suffolk does well for little owls, the species being more abundant here than in most other English counties.

Little owls are generally most abundant where there are small parcels of farmland, interspersed with woodland edge and well connected with mature hedgerows; sizeable parts of the Suffolk countryside deliver this combination.

The little owl is easily overlooked, no doubt in part because of its small size, but it is more active during daylight hours than our other owls and it is quite vocal in its habits, uttering a wide range of calls. Most active at dawn and dusk, individuals spend at least some of the daylight hours loafing on a favourite perch or at the entrance to the nest site. At this time of the year, most of our breeding little owls will have young chicks in the nest. These are fed on a diet of small mammals, small birds and large invertebrates, with large beetles and earthworms prominent in the diet. Once the chicks are bigger they too may be seen loafing at the entrance to the nest.

All is not well for our little owls, however, and annual monitoring schemes operated by the British Trust for Ornithology, coupled with data from Bird Atlas 2007-11, reveal a population in decline. There has been a marked contraction in the breeding range occupied by the little owl within the UK, with the species lost from its western margins. This pattern of loss is being mirrored elsewhere in Europe, raising concerns among researchers and conservation bodies. It is thought that changing agricultural practices and increased levels of pollution may be to blame. It is known, for example, that the use of veterinary antihelminitics to control parasitic worms in livestock is detrimental to beetles feeding on cattle dung, and the little owls which then eat the beetles.

The decline of the little owl raises an interesting conundrum for UK conservationists. The species is not native, having been first successfully introduced to the country in 1879, by rich landowners keen to use it as a means of keeping down the numbers of vermin. But it has now become a well-established part of our avifauna, seemingly without any negative impacts on other species, and its loss would be mourned by those who have come to see the little owl as a sign of a healthy farmland environment. Research into the UK’s little owls is taking place, much of it by volunteers and often centred around nest box schemes, through which the breeding success of these birds is monitored. Of course we also need to know about other aspects of little owl ecology and we need to understand the drivers for the change in fortunes that we are seeing. With so many owl enthusiasts in the UK, we are well placed to collect information that will help the species more widely across its European range.