The little owl (Athene noctua) is a bird that inhabits much of the temperate and warmer parts of Europe, Asia east to Korea, and north Africa.
The little owl is a small owl with a flat-topped head, a plump, compact body and a short tail. The facial disc is flattened above the eyes giving the bird a frowning expression. The plumage is greyish-brown, spotted, streaked and barred with white. The underparts are pale and streaked with darker colour. It is usually 22 centimetres (8.7 in) in length with a wingspan of 56 centimetres (22 in) for both sexes, and weighs about 180 grams (6.3 oz).
The adult little owl of the most widespread form, the nominate A. n. noctua, is white-speckled brown above, and brown-streaked white below. It has a large head, long legs, and yellow eyes, and its white “eyebrows” give it a stern expression. Juveniles are duller, and lack the adult's white crown spots. This species has a bounding flight like a woodpecker but the rounded wingtips and general appearance of the birds are quite different. Moult begins in July and continues to November, with male starting before female.
The call is a querulous kiew, kiew. Less frequently, various whistling or trilling calls are uttered. In the breeding season, other more modulated calls are made, and a pair may call in duet. Various yelping, chattering or barking sounds are made in the vicinity of the nest.
Distribution and habitat
The distribution is widespread across Europe, Asia and North Africa. Its range in Eurasia extends from the Iberian Peninsula and Denmark eastwards to China and southwards to the Himalayas. In Africa it is present from Mauritania to Egypt, the Red Sea and Arabia. The bird has been introduced to New Zealand, and to the United Kingdom, where it has spread across much of England and the whole of Wales.
This is a sedentary species which is found in open countryside in a great range of habitats. These include agricultural land with hedgerows and trees, orchards, woodland verges, parks and gardens, as well as steppes and stony semi-deserts. It is also present in treeless areas such as dunes, and in the vicinity of ruins, quarries and rocky outcrops. It sometimes ventures into villages and suburbs. In the United Kingdom it is chiefly a bird of the lowlands, and usually occurs below 500 m (1,600 ft). In continental Europe and Asia it may be found at much higher elevations; one individual was recorded from 3,600 m (12,000 ft) in Tibet.
Behaviour and ecology
The owl usually perches in an elevated position ready to swoop down on any small creature it notices. It feeds on prey such as insects and earthworms, as well as small vertebrates including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. It may pursue prey on the ground and it caches surplus food in holes or other hiding places. A study of the pellets of indigestible material that the birds regurgitate found mammals formed 20 to 50% of the diet and insects 24 to 49%. Mammals taken included mice, rats, voles, shrews, moles and rabbits. The birds were mostly taken during the breeding season and were often fledglings, and including the chicks of game birds. The insects included Diptera, Dermaptera, Coleoptera, Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera. Some vegetable matter (up to 5%) was included in the diet and may have been ingested incidentally.
The little owl is territorial, the male normally remaining in one territory for life. However the boundaries may expand and contract, being largest in the courtship season in spring. The home range, in which the bird actually hunts for food, varies with the type of habitat and time of year. Little owls with home-ranges that incorporate a high diversity of habitats are much smaller (< 2 ha) than those which breed in monotonous farmland (with home-ranges over 12 ha). Larger home ranges results in increased flight activity, longer foraging trips and fewer nest visits. If a male intrudes into the territory of another, the occupier approaches and emits its territorial calls. If the intruder persists, the occupier flies at him aggressively. If this is unsuccessful, the occupier repeats the attack, this time trying to make contact with his claws. In retreat, an owl often drops to the ground and makes a low-level escape. The territory is more actively defended against a strange male as compared to a known male from a neighbouring territory; it has been shown that the little owl can recognise familiar birds by voice.