Little owl (Athene noctua)
|Also known as:||northern little owl, Tibet owl|
|Size||Length: 21 – 23 cm (2)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (2).
The little owl is a diminutive species, which possesses a plump, round body, bright yellow eyes and spotted plumage. There are thirteen recognised subspecies of little owl which differ in size and colouration, but typically exhibit plumages in various shades of grey-brown, rufous-brown and yellowish-brown. The body and head bear extensive white markings, appearing as spots on the wings, back and head, and broader splashes of white on the breast. The juvenile is paler and more uniformly patterned than the adult, with buff, rather than white, spotting. When advertising for a mate, the male little owl produces a mellow hoot, “gooek”, which rises in pitch. In addition, both sexes also give a repeated loud “hoo” call (2).
The little owl has an extremely large range, comprising a broad band extending from western Europe and north-west Africa east to Mongolia, China and Vietnam. The southern limits of this species’ range extend as far as The Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa, while its northern limits extend as far as Latvia (1) (2). The little owl has been introduced in many areas, historically in Britain, and more recently to New Zealand (3) (4).
Occupying a variety of semi-open habitats, the little owl can be found in steppe, stony desert, farmland, open woodland and urban areas. While mainly occupying temperate environments, this species does also occur in tropical regions, and may be found from sea level to elevations of 3,000 metres, and exceptionally to 4,600 metres (2) (3).
One of the most diurnal species of owl, in some parts of its range the little owl often hunts during the day (5). Like most owls, however, it is also commonly active between dusk and dawn, and is generally encountered perched on post, tree or telegraph wire, scanning the ground for prey. It feeds upon a variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, beetles, crickets, earwigs and earthworms. Insects are particularly favoured, and may form up to 98 percent of this species’ diet in the Mediterranean. Prey is mostly caught by swooping down from a perch, with larger animals snatched with the feet and smaller victims taken using the bill. Surprisingly, given the typically carnivorous diet of owls, the little owl also seems to deliberately take some plant material, such as grasses and other leaves, and occasionally small fruits, berries and maize. Food is sometimes hoarded by this species, with some caches containing as many as 30 items for later consumption (2).
The little owl breeds between March and August, and forms monogamous pairs, which remain together for at least a year and possibly until one of the birds dies. The nest is constructed within a hollow cavity, which is scraped out and cleaned before a clutch of three to six eggs is laid within. Both incubation of the eggs, which takes between 28 and 33 days, and brooding of the chicks, which lasts for a further 14 days, are performed by the female, while the male supplies food. After brooding, both parent birds supply food for the chicks, which may begin to explore outside the nest in the surrounding vegetation. At around 30 to 35 days old the chicks become fully fledged, but continue to be provided with food for a further month. The little owl often returns to the same nesting site, with some nests in Britain being reused for over 25 years (2).
A common and widespread species (2), in 2009 the little owl’s population was estimated at between 5,000,000 and 15,000,000 individuals (6). Nevertheless, in parts of Europe, as a result of industrialised farming practices removing food sources, loss of habitat, road-traffic deaths and deliberate persecution, this species is considered to be undergoing a moderate decline (2) (7).
Although the little owl does not require large-scale conservation action, nest boxes have been provided in some parts of its range to replace natural nesting sites that have been destroyed (2).
To learn more about owl conservation visit:
- World Owl Trust:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Diurnal: active during the day.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Steppe: natural grassland with low rainfall. In Africa this lies in the transition zone between savanna and severe desert.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (July, 2009)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1999) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-Owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Weick, F. (2006) Owls (Strigiformes): Annotated and Illustrated Checklist. Springer, New York.
BBC (July, 2009)
- Yosef, R. (1993) Effects of little owl predation on northern shrike postfledging success. The Auk, 110: 396 - 398.
BirdLife International (July, 2009)
BirdLife International. (2004) Birds in Europe: Population Estimates, Trends and Conservation Status. NHBS, Totnes. Available at: