9 Feb 2021

Little Owls and me

I  can’t remember the first time I saw a Little Owl. It was probably when we moved to rural Suffolk when I was just 11. I remember finding & seeing my first Barn Owl here when I disturbed one in an old deserted Suffolk Barn. It was nesting and hissed before swooping down and dive bombing my old Labrador who, at that time, was my constant companion. Looking back in my diaries going back to 1976 I mention Little Owl but I don’t recall when I ever saw my first one. Introduced in the in the 1800’s from mainland Europe and spread across the UK but are now in decline in many areas. They’re not native to the UK but, unlike Canada Geese, I don’t know anyone who feels they shouldn’t be allowed to existing this country - after all what damage do they do and the fact they’re found throughout Europe as does much of our native bird life. In any case, they’re characterful & feisty & I don’t know any birder who doesn’t enjoy seeing a Little Owl.

Although I can’t remember seeing my first Little Owl but I can remember ringing my first one! Surprisingly it wasn’t in Suffolk but in Gloucestershire on a zoology field trip to Woodchester park in 1981. Part of the course included bird ringing demonstrations & population studies with the late Dr Mike Hounsome. As a C permit ringer I was in the strange position of being both student and demonstrator. Attached to the field centre was an old orchard and we had mist nets set and one morning, whilst taking a group of students round the nets, I came across a wriggling entangled bundle of indignant fury that proceeded to draw blood as I tried to extract it in front of my fellow students - much to their amusement. 

Fast forward almost 35 years and a good friend, Barry Barnacal, invited me to ring some Little Owl chicks in a natural nest hole on a farm local to him. A memorable occasion when, as we attempted to reach into the hole to ring the owlets my hand touched something warm & I pulled it out to find myself holding a decapitated rat! 

We ringed one adult & a single chick on that date. With the landowners permission we put up a nest box but for a couple of years the Owls studiously ignored it. Until the day Barry sent me a photo of the box with a Little Owl pokings it’s head out! 

That year we ringed five young along with the adult female & the next year three. 

Since then we’ve put up several more boxes on the farm in the hope that dispersing young from the original territory. Notice I used the term territory & not pair as our ringing has shown that there has been a turnover of birds since the first adult was ringed in 2014 culminating in the discovery a couple of years ago that the breeding female was one of five pullus ringed in the box in 2014! Where had she been in the intervening years? 

I found a pair of Little Owls local to where we lived at the time and got permission off another farmer to out a box up although it was never used and the Little Owl field has now been built on. Surprisingly the ecological survey report didn’t mention Little Owls breeding on the site...... I did find the feathers of one within a few hundred metres of the box that looked like it had been predated by a Sparrowhawk or Buzzard. More on that later. 

Fast forward again to December 2016 when we moved into our current house with a large garden & a rural outlook. We’d often walked the lanes around the house and that how we found it for sale. It’s only 3 km from our previous house in a straight line but I’d never seen Little Owls locally.

Cue a comment from another friend, Mark P, who commented, when he first visited, ‘looks ideal for Little Owl mate’. 

Sure enough within days we were amazed when one started calling on our roof! We heard them regularly but I couldn’t pin them down. Until one sunny day I made a determined effort to find them by standing in the garden with binoculars and scanning all the large oaks in the surrounding pasture. Success! Unbelievably only about 200 m from the rear garden and visible from inside the house.

They bred that year (2017) and we spent sunny evenings outside sitting with a G & T as the young called from trees in our garden & a neighbours. In May I actually caught the adult male in our garden as I had a mist net set up after a rain shower that had resulted in a mini fall of warblers. I subsequently photographed him sat on an old black poplar in our boundary hedge.

Little Owl in our garden 2017. Note the ring on left leg.

Unfortunately I returned from work one day to find a number of adult Little Owl feathers in a little pile on the lawn & suspected one of the birds had been predated by a Sparrowhawk. Sure enough I found the remains of the carcass in our ditch a few weeks later - un-ringed so the assumption was it was the adult female.

In 2018 the single bird abandoned its preferred nesting hole as the farmer (who was unaware of where the nest hole was) cut off some low hanging branches whilst hedge trimming & spooked it. We could still hear it occasionally and the following spring we heard the male ‘singing’. Eventually I found out where it was hiding in an old oak with the hole only visible from walking the nearby footpath along the top of a railway embankment. The old oak is slowly collapsing and each year has fewer & fewer leafing branches. Seeking the farmers permission I explained my interest and got permission to put a box up on the condition it was high enough not to interfere with his hedge cutting and that I didn’t take the Landrover across his field. Luckily it was only a few hundred metres from our garden so it was easy enough to get across with the box and ladders in a couple of trips. I put the box on an oak within 50 m of the decrepit one in a position we could see from the house and waited...... that was 2019......

Since then I came across another Little Owl about 1 km away and we could hear the two birds calling to each other some evenings but there was no evidence of a pair. In the winter of 2019 and early spring of 2020 a bird was regularly heard (but rarely seen) roosting in an old ivy covered oak in our neighbours garden. One morning I noticed a Little Owl back outside the original nesting hole and had hopes that they’d returned. Unfortunately that hope was dashed a few days later when a white blob outside the hole revealed itself, with the aid of binoculars, to be a Barn Owl! A bird that subsequently spent a few weeks roosting in a Tawny Owl box in our garden.

A single Little Owl was occasionally seen throughout 2020 either in the original tree or in the neighbours garden but by now Grey Squirrels had taken over the original hole. Just before Christmas 2020 a pair of Little Owls were heard calling in our neighbours garden but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I actually saw a pair sat outside the original hole. Hopefully they’ll breed successfully this year & we’ll enjoy the presence of Little Owls on territory again so close to the house.