All About Little Owls

The Little Owl in the UK

Little owl in typical pose on top of the roof ridge of an old barn. Thanks to Ian Smith for the photo
Little owl in typical pose on top of the roof ridge of an old barn. Thanks to Ian Smith for the photo

The Little Owl was successfully introduced into England during the late 1880s. The owls were purchased in Italy and released by wealthy landowners to eat garden pests. By the 1930s, they had spread rapidly from Kent and Northamptonshire and had colonised much of England and Wales with a few pairs in southern Scotland. It is likely that there were further introductions for this to happen and it is possible that some Little Owls were migrants. Click here to learn about the types of habitats where you can find Little Owls in the UK.

From the mid 1930s, there were reports that the Little Owl was declining due to cold winters and loss of semi-natural habitats. The Little Owl has no formal conservation status in the UK.

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Little Owl – Juvenile © Liz Cutting @ www.lizcuttingphotos.com

Physical Description
Height: 22 cm; Wingspan: 56 cm; Weight: Male and Female = 180 g

The Little Owl is often described as stocky due to its broad round head, plump body and short tail. Adult body colour is chocolate-brown with an olive-brown tinge, and pale streaks and spots on the back, breast and head. Wing feathers are various shades of dark olive-brown, grey-brown or mid-brown with well spaced pale spots along the inner and outer edges. Juveniles have similar plumage markings but their feathers look softer and shorter.

Adults have bright lemon-yellow eyes and juveniles have pale yellow-grey eyes. Little Owls are often described as having a frowning expression because of the pale feathers that surround their eyes. Male and female Little Owls look similar.

Diet and Feeding Behaviour
The Little Owl typically hunts worms, beetles, moths, small mammals and birds. Their diet varies throughout the year. Little Owls have fantastic eyesight and are able to hunt in the day and at night. They catch prey by stooping on it from a perch or running after it on the ground. They are especially active between dusk and midnight and at dawn. Little Owls cough up 1 ‒ 2 pellets each day. Their pellets contain ingestible prey remains (e.g. fur and bones).

Breeding
Little Owls do not build their own nests. They depend on the availability of a pre-existing cavity for breeding and usually breed in tree hollows, farm buildings and nest boxes. Egg laying usually starts from mid April, but can be as late as early May, and the average clutch size is 3 ‒ 4 eggs per breeding attempt. Eggs are laid on alternate days and full incubation begins after the last egg has been laid. The female incubates her eggs for 29 ‒ 31 days and the nestlings are brooded for 28 days before branching, which is when they first leave their nest site. The parents continue to feed and teach their fledglings to fend for themselves until late summer, which is when they leave their parent’s territory to find their own. They are able to breed in the following spring.