Of all the British owls, the Little Owl is the odd one out, it isn’t a native species and yet we tolerate it unlike other alien organisms that have been foolishly brought to our shores. It is a very charismatic and pretty bird, being small in stature with light streaks and spots across its darker brown feathers, and it has a distinctive creamy ring about its face that gives it the impression of having huge angry eyebrows. They are also often quite active in the day and so can be easier to find than our other species, although their small size counteracts this somewhat. They also have a sort of classical/Mediterranean air to them, it’s easy to imagine them hopping around the ruins of ancient Greece, and this is reflected in their scientific name of Athene noctua which links them to the goddesses Athena and Minerva (the former Greek & the latter Roman versions of the same) who represented wisdom and knowledge.
This cute little fluffpot is native to continental Europe and was introduced here in the 19th Century by the introduction-mad Victorians, it can now be found across England and Wales and southern Scotland but is commonest in the south. Despite being an alien species this owl does not yet appear to have had any negative impacts on our native flora or fauna, nor could it be said that it has had any positive impacts – apart from entertaining us cute-loving humans that is. But then it isn’t a particularly common bird, it doesn’t occur at high densities in our landscape and in fact seems to be declining of late, so it is unlikely to have much effect on the ecosystem.
My most recent encounter with this species, in this country, was last December when I visited a well-known reliable location for this owl on the southern slope of the South Downs in West Sussex. Locating the particular tree that the owls were supposed to reside in was easy enough, it was a half-dead Larch at the cross-roads of some country lanes, but spotting the owls proved to be a tad more tricky. I spent probably a good half-hour fruitlessly scanning one side of the tree looking for an owl silhouette before moving around to view the other side. It didn’t look promising from this angle either, until my friend said he could see it and after a lot of pointing and directions I finally spotted the owl.
It was just one owl, perched on a branch that was partially obscured by the foliage of a higher branch, it was completely motionless, absolutely tiny and staring right at us. It barely moved the whole time we were looking at it, which was a little disappointing as it would have been nice to see it properly. I was struck at how easy it could be to miss this bird even if you were looking for it, which somewhat explains why I have only seen three of these charming owls in Britain to date. The first I ever saw were a pair perched in a big oak tree on a marsh in Kent, again I knew they were there otherwise I would have missed them, and I saw one in Spain earlier this year, perched rather incongruously on a boulder on the slope of a mountain.
I certainly think it is a treat seeing these owls, they are so different from the other species, and despite them being non-native I don’t see any problem with them being here. The conundrum comes when we acknowledge that they are declining for whatever reason in this country, indeed across their natural European range too, and we have to ask ourselves whether we should put any money, time or resources into research and conservation efforts in aid of the Little Owl. There are many species in big trouble in the UK which need our attention and protection, and it is only right that native species should have priority in terms of resource allocation, but all the same it will be a sad day if the Little Owl vanishes from our fields and woods for good.