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Little Owl - Athene noctua

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Calls - Athene noctua
Typical Call, male © Brinzal
Excited © Brinzal
Alarm / warning call © Steenuilgroningen
Disturbed © Steenuilgroningen
Young at nest Boltiere city, North Italy, July 2005 © Marco Mastrorilli

Introduction: The Little Owl is a small owl with relatively long legs, short tail, and a rather flat head with no ear-tufts.

[For help with terms used in the description, see parts of an owl. For general characteristics common to most owl species, see owl physiology.]

Description: The facial disc is not well defined, and is greyish-brown with light mottling. There are prominent whitish eyebrows. Eyes are sulphur-yellow to pale yellow, cere is olive-grey and bill is greyish-green to yellowish-grey. Forehead and crown are streaked and spotted whitish. Upperparts are dark brown, with many whitish spots. Flight feathers are barred whitish and dark brown. The tail is dark brown with a few whitish or pale ochre bars. The throat is plain whitish, with a narrow brown collar below. Neck and upper breast is diffusely spotted light and dark. The remainder of the underparts are whitish, boldly streaked dark brown. The belly is plain whitish.
Tarsi are relatively long and feathered whitish. Toes are pale grey-brown and bristled, claws are dark horn with blackish tips.

Size: Length 21-23cm. Wing length 146-181mm. Tail length 68-96mm. Weight 105-260g.

Habits: The Little Owl is most active at dusk, but also partly active by day, and at night. Often roosts by day in dense foliage or openings of holes. Sometimes perches in exposed sites such as fence posts, telephone poles, bare branches or mounds of earth or rocks. When disturbed at roost, it adopts a slim, upright position, then bobs its body up and down. If still threatened, it will fly away, or withdraw into a nearby hole.
When leaving the perch, the owl drops down and flies low over the ground before sweeping up to another perch. Flight is undulating with rapid wingbeats alternating with gliding.
Little Owls are vocally active nearly all year, but especially around the courtship period. Males normally begin to sing at dusk, and are sometimes vocal by day, and can be heard at night during courtship.

Voice: The song of the male is a fluted, nasal gwooihk with an upwards inflection repeated at intervals of several seconds. When excited, the call becomes more cat-like and explosive - kweeo - and is repeated several times. The female call is similar, but higher pitched. Both sexes give a piercing series of shrill yelping notes when disturbed - kwiff-kwiff-kwiff-kwiff...
Likely warning calls include a cackling kekekek and a short kyu. Contact call between the male and female is a soft repeated uhk note.

Hunting & Food: Little Owls feed on insects (mainly beetles and grasshoppers), other arthropods, small reptiles, small frogs, small mammals and birds, as well as earthworms. Prey is normally caught from a perch by swooping down on it. The owl will often hop and move about on the ground in search of food. Surplus food is stored in caches, generally in holes.
Pellets measure 30-40 x 10-19mm.

Breeding: Little Owls are territorial birds. The male sings at different perches in its territory and advertises the potential nesting site by singing near it or from the entrance. This usually starts in February, with main courtship begining in March. The male will often duet with the female during courtship.
The nest can be a natural hole in a tree or pollarded willow, but preferred sites are hollow branches of old fruit trees. Artificial nest boxes are often accepted, also holes or cavities in walls, under eaves, in earth or clay banks of rivers or ravines, in cliffs and in walls of sand-pits, and abandoned mammal burrows in the ground, holes in termite mounds etc.
In Central Europe, egg laying normally occurs from April to mid May. 3-6 white eggs are usually laid at 2 day intervals directly on the bottom of the cavity in a shallow depression created 1-2 weeks earlier. Eggs average 34.4 x 29.6mm. The incubation period begins before the final egg is laid and lasts 22-28 days. The female alone incubates the clutch while being fed by the male. Chicks are blind when they hatch, and open their eyes at 8-10 days old. The female broods them for about a week and feeds them herself with food brought in by the male. Young leave the nest at about 35 days, and are then fed by both parents. They are able to fly at about 38-46 days, and at 2-3 months are independent and ready to leave the parents' territory. Sexual maturity is reached before 1 year.
Normally, only one brood is produced per year, but if food is abundant, double-brooding may sometimes occur.

Mortality: Little Owls may reach an age of about 16 years, but normally do not live that long. Many individuals are hit by vehicles when hunting at night. Severe winters with a lot of snow may also lead to huge losses in some populations.

Habitat: Open country with stands of trees and bushes, rocky country, deserts and semi-deserts with rocks or ruins, oases, pastureland with scattered trees, orchards with old fruit trees, along rivers and creeks with pollarded willows and other trees, parkland, and edges of semi-open woodland. Locally around farmhouses or barns, or sometimes other settlements with surrounding cultivated land with trees. Ranges from sea level to open montane regions; up to 4600m in the Himalayas but normally below 700m in Central Europe. Avoids forest.

Distribution: Eurasia from Iberia north to Denmark, Southern Sweden and Latvia, east to Asia Minor, Levant, Arabia, Central and Eastern Asia to China and Manchuria, south to Northern Africa and Red Sea coast to Somalia and Eritrea. Introduced to Southern Britain and New Zealand South island.

Distribution of Little Owl - Athene noctua
Distribution of the Little Owl Athene noctua

Status: Widespread, abundant within its range.

Original Description: Scopoli, Giovanni Antonio. 1769. Annus I-(V) Historico-Naturalis (Annus I Hist.-Nat.): p 22.

Subspecies: A. n. noctua, A. n. bactriana, A. n. glaux, A. n. impasta, A. n. indigena, A. n. ludlowi, A. n. orientalis, A. n. plumipes, A. n. saharae, A. n. somaliensis, A. n. spilogastra, A. n. vidalii, A. n. lilith


del Hoyo, Elliott & Sargatal. 1999. "Handbook of the Birds of the World: Barn Owls to Hummingbirds". Buteo Books
König, Claus & Weick, Friedhelm. 2008. "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World (Second Edition)". Yale University Press
König, Weick and Becking. 1999. "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World". Yale University Press
Mikkola, Heimo. 1983. "Owls of Europe". Buteo Books
Mikkola, Heimo. 2012. "Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide". Bloomsbury
Voous, Karel H. 1988. "Owls of the Northern Hemisphere". The MIT Press

Page Information:

Page compiled by . Page last updated 2013-08-09 Owl Species ID: 220.010.000

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