Little owls – would you miss them?

My American friend who visited recently would have quite liked to have been shown a little owl, and I would have quite liked to have shown him one, but they are dropping out of my life.

And if you can’t see a little owl in Northamptonshire then where can you see them, I ask?  The reason I say that is, of course (?), that little owls were introduced into the UK in the 19th century by the fourth Baron Lilford who was a ‘top birder’ in these parts of east Northants at that time. And that’s why the little owl is the logo of the Northants Bird Club.

But I realised that it seemed to me that I haven’t seen a little owl for a while, and on checking my records on Birdtrack I am slightly surprised to find that I didn’t see a little owl in either 2011 or 2010 so it really is some time ago.  So the next question has to be – is it just me?

The State of the UK’s Birds for 2011 shows that little owls have decined in numbers by 40% in the last 40 years, with most of that decline since 1990.  So it’s probably not just me.

Given that little owls are farmland species that depend on invertebrates such as large insects and earthworms it may not be surprising that they are declining but I expect someone will blame their decline on the badger if we wait long enough!

I’m glad to see that a student called Emily Joachim has been studying little owls and so maybe she will have discovered the reasons for the decline – or at least be in a better position to guess than I am.

Because they are an introduced species little owls are not classified on the green, amber and red lists but they would be amber-listed and heading for red if they were a native species.  I miss them locally to me and find myself keeping a keen eye open for them these days at dusk.  Would you miss them if they went?

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25 Replies to “Little owls – would you miss them?”

  1. Hi Mark, I posed the same question in the LROS newsletter The Grebe a few years ago. This set Paul Riddle off looking for them and in an area of South Leicestershire he now has 201 territories. See Paul's blog and if you want any tips on locating Little Owl, Paul has the most finely honed 'search image' I have ever known.

  2. Certainly NOT is my answer to your question.
    I admit they score highly in the "cute" ranking, but they are not native and they do impact on native populations of rare breeding birds. In my experience they have reduced a population of little terns by predating breeding adults AND large chicks. Our little tern population is very low and I doubt whether it can be maintained for much longer (little owl may not be the primary factor, my money is on kestrel). We have removed some little owl breeding options locally, but they are still around and may still have an impact - it's so hard to know. Also a local farmer told me that a little owl nest he found in an old building was scattered with the legs of skylarks.
    So, they might be lovely to look at, but I am not concerned about their decline, in fact I welcome it...

  3. It's very hard to be consistent about whether we love or loathe introduced species, isn't it? But perhaps that is as it should be - our fauna and flora is constantly changing, and if we're going to pass judgement on which species are good and bad it's best to do so on whether they have negative effects or not, rather than on how long it is since they arrived in this country. The difficult thing is that not everyone agrees on what is a negative effect.

    Hard to think of a negative effect from Little Owls though. As an entomologist I suppose I should stand up for large insects and earthworms, but I guess it is more likely that the prey is limiting the predator rather than the other way round. Look forward to finding out the results of the research.

  4. Mark, Interesting to see John's posting as this is similar to where I am coming from. I always used to see Little Owl but don't see as many so in that I agree with you. Then I found I was saying that to friends and they would say 'go and see that one at...'. I have now got a short list of local spots where I can see them with patience. So if I want to see Little Owls do I go and try and find them - No I go where I can see them and perhaps that is the point. Our birding style has changed (or am I getting older) and it is probably no coincidence that all the locations I go to are next to roads. I suspect that to some small extent we treat the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the same way and go where we know they are.

  5. Hi Mark, a really interesting one this as it touches on two major conservation issues - the impacts of non-natives species and the decline of our farmland bird species.

    Little Owls have seen declines in the UK before. In the past there was some evidence that they were susceptible to hard winters (e.g. 1946/7 and 1962/7) and BWP attributed declines in Europe to increase use of pesticides. Interesting the BTO's two breeding atlases (1976 and 1993) gave similar population estimates of around 7,000-14,000 (1976) and 6,000 - 12,000 (1993). It will be interesting to see where the new atlas places it in relation to these previous estimates.

    As a farmland species it has almost certainly been hit by changes in agricultural practices and habitat changes. However its decline may have been masked to some extent and may now only being seen for real. Why? Firstly food. LOs have a very catholic diet throughout the year - invertebrates, small mammals, small birds (especially during the breeding season), amphibians and even plants. Unlike many farmland species it is not a specialist, its a generalist, so can probably exist for longer in a changing habitat when other species may have long been driven out. Secondly, nest sites. LOs make use of natural sites such as holes in trees as well as buildings. Even when hedgerows have been removed, often larger trees are left, and these at least provide a nest site for some species such as LO, but only those species which didn't need the hedgerow or the removed field margin that went with the hedgerow.

    Here in the Huntingdonshire fens (just a short crow flight from you) LOs are very common. I can see one from my office window as I am typing (sat in a hole in a long barn which was created by the farmer at my request when he was 'tidying up' some of his out buildings). I could probably take you straight to 20 prs within a few miles of my house. And like John and Bob above, its very easy to know where to look for LOs rather than just going out randomly looking for them. In fact, when I'm away birding from my home fen, e.g. during recent atlas work, I could pretty much predict which stands of trees or farm buildings would hold LOs with about a 95% success rate. So I wonder just how much of the decline is actually real rather than it being a species which could go under-recorded. Here the population appears to be stable and I find new pairs every year around the fens.

    But as well as continued farming practice changes, there is a major issues which faces LO and other species which use similar landscapes in the arable landscape - the loss of nest sites. Firstly the remaining older trees are now beginning to die off with no regeneration to replace them (as there would have been within a hedgerow). And second, all those old farm buildings, now too small for modern day machinery storage, are being left to die and many are beginning to fall down and are not being replaced (and those new buildings which do get erected, large corrugated metal barns, are not bird-friendly at all).

    One solution, I think pioneered by Nicholas Watts at Vine House Farm in South Lincs (of Vine House Farm Bird Foods fame and two-time recipient of the Silver Lapwing award), is the construction of 'bird buildings' similar to the one here ( on the Barn Owl Trust website. Nicholas Watts has built several similar buildings (his are taller and thinner) and have nesting sites built to accommodate large hole nesters such as Little Owl, Barn Owl, Stock Dove and Kestrel, as well as holes for sparrows (Tree Sparrow being a target of Nicholas). Alas in the current climate I cant see too many of these towers being built, but I would love to see them across our countryside (like on my own fen).

    As to the non-native aspect, I note the post by Barry and this highlights the problem with any non-native species. As a firm 'anti non-native' I'm morally obliged to wish even the Little Owl gone, but as a realist its a species which is so established anything other than a 'natural' decline would be both fool-hardy and uneconomic (and at a time when we need to make limited resources stretch even further). It would be cheaper to manage any impact issues on a local scale. But I would miss it very much if it ever did disappear from our countryside, and it is perhaps the only non-native species I would actually miss. But I really don't think it will go.

    1. Dear Mark and Steve,

      I really enjoyed reading your views on the Little Owl. I have recently finished my PhD researching the breeding ecology of the Little Owl in England. I continue to promote Little Owl conservation and agree it is best at the local scale. I mainly study two populations, which are located in Wiltshire and Lancashire.

      From the non-native aspect, there are some interesting old papers that suggest that the Little Owl could have been resident in Britain prior to their introduction. They are fairly sedentary birds, so I think that there would have had to have been a lot more introductions for them to have spread so quickly across many parts of England and Wales, with some pairs in southern Scotland. I know there were several more smaller introductions after the first documented successful introductions.

      From my experience, the British Little Owl population seems to be very patchy. In a Wilshire nest box project, occupancy numbers have dropped from 22 pairs in 2000 to 5/6 pairs each year since 2009. Lots of landowners concerned about the loss of their Little Owls, including from sites where old trees remain, no new chemicals have been introduced and livestock grazing intensity remains unchanged. A similar pattern has been observed in parts of Lancashire and Oxfordshire.

      There seems to be clusters of Little Owls in some areas of Britain, including in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. The Little Owl's recent downward CBC/BBS population trend, a 50 % population decline between 2001 and 2012 and the contraction in this species' breeding range between Bird Atlases indicate that the Little Owl is rapidly declining. But I am aware it is difficult to accurately conclude this ,as the Little Owl has a large breeding range and most surveys are carried out in daytime, which is not ideal.

      I suspect that Little Owls could be affected by population increases in their competitors and predators in addition to the challenges that face many or our farmland birds.

      I agree with you both and I would miss Little Owls very much if they were to disappear. Wildlife Photographer Andy Rouse released a book called 'Little Owls: Living on the Edge'. The foreword is by Chris Packham and I wrote the conservation essay. Andy is kindly donated money from each book sale to Little Owl conservation projects run by the BTO.

      I have teamed up with the Hawk and Owl Trust and Andy Rouse for a 'UK Little Owl Count' project that will be launched later on this month. We want to enthuse and encourage people to go out and find their Little Owls. Website address will be

      Very glad the Little Owl has some fans 🙂

  6. Very interesting discussion. When I had management responsibility for Skomer and Skokholm we had many discussions about what we should do about our population of Little Owls which were happily munching away at our dwindling colonies of Storm Petrels.

    I am not sure we ever came to a conclusion then or even now.

    As conservationists we happily lecture all who will listen on the threats of introduced species but our hearts often interfere in the case of a bird like the Little Owl. I will never forget the look on a country gentleman's face when I reminded him that a Pheasant was an introduced species. This was minutes after he had proclaimed that we should campaign to exterminate Grey Squirrels, Canada Geese and indeed all introduced species.

    Sometimes I think we are just going to have to accept a 21st century landscape and fauna and flora.

    1. Derek - yes I remember being asked at a Game Fair 'debate' whether the RSPB would compensate farmers for any livestock taken by sea eagles if they were reintroduced into East Anglia and saying not until I could claim from the CLA and GWCT for every pheasant that damaged a car and from the royal family for Canada geese problems.

  7. Thought-provoking post - thanks Mark.

    I can say that I've never been aware of LOs taking little terns, petrels or skylarks but I certainly appreciate the problem that would cause if serious enough.

    I remember as an 18 year old, first happening across a LO "bouncing" across our local farmland and I adored seeing it.
    I watched the family raise two chicks and so reliable were they, I invited my "wildlife-loving" sister and her husband to see these pretty little owls, which we did and all of us remember that summer evening fondly.
    Over twenty years later and my wife and I have recently bought a house in the SE of England, very close to a huge farm where LOs have been reported for at least a decade.

    I now take immense pleasure in watching our local LOs these days (after not seeing any for some time), they bred successfully last year and the male has already started to begin to defend last year's breeding territory.

    My potential local issue is that they've taken over a barn owl box, but barn owls have never been seen in the area, so I am fine with that, for now. (On that note, we had a breeding pair of barn owls in another box about 10 miles away, so I can get my native owl fix if I need it!)

    Would I miss them if they disappeared?
    I've missed them for twenty years, so undoubtedly I would, yes.
    Soppy old me - maybe I'm going a bit "Disney" in my old age... gawd forbid.

    Would I miss some of our other "non-native" species if they disappeared?
    Species like pheasants, red-legged partridge, fallow deer, brown hares, rabbits, mandarins, rainbow trout or canada geese?

    Possibly all of the species I mentioned above, apart from fallow deer (I much prefer our native roe) and canada geese.

    No rhyme or reason to it I guess....

  8. I saw Little Owls the other day for the first time in four years. I feel they are a welcome introduction to our avifauna and their impact on native species minimal.

    Due to their 'No Status' amongst birds of conservation concern, it's obvious that their decline is often overlooked, but they are just another famland indicator species that's in trouble. Their loss would not be catastrophic, but it would certainly make a point.

  9. Very much doubt they have any significant affect on tern chicks or any other birds or chicks on mainland,may be a different matter on a island with lots of L O and little else to eat except chicks.All raptors including L O get blame when mostly corvids do more damage and probably to the Tern chicks as well.
    We observed L O on the farm over 20 years with no evidence of them ever eating hardly anything except worms.they are probably the introduced species that cause least damage to lndigenous species and environment,just very unlucky to be a raptor and bet if they were near a Grouse moor would even be blamed for killing Grouse.
    Think it very likely that reported farmer blaming L O for taking Skylarks to take the blame away from modern farming with no Skylark patches.For a L O to get lots of Skylark legs in nest it would have to hunt over miles of land and be the most efficient hunter ever known.

  10. I would certainly miss Little Owls and whilst I've not yet seen opne this year I'm sure i shall. They are not that uncommon in this part of Yorkshire. I don't think that the idea they are aliens is that clear cut as were they not rare vagrants before introduction, so they may all stem from introduced forebears but may still legitimately a British bird, something we cannot say for the Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge or Mandarin ( the latter is the only one I'd miss). There are some introductions that are undoubtedly a problem and deserve to follow the Ruddy Duck, all the alien deer, brown rat, Canada Goose, but then isn't the latter also a vagrant. Just shows it is a complex world and little is clear.

  11. Hi Mark,funny that blog on Thursday saying where could you see L O then today someone took a photo of a beauty in the village.They have always managed to cling on in the village against the odds.Although I generally dislike imported species cannot help having a really soft spot for a lovely really small bird.When at the farm they nested in redundant chimney or hollow tree and when we came home late at night would often be on farm tarmac drive because it held the heat from sun in daytime.Wondered if they had held on and then wife see one a few weeks ago.Wonder if you know but the ones at the farm when perching on electric pole which was a favourite place,they would move round as you went along the road always keeping on the cross pole and keeping upright pole between us and them,sort of playing hide and seek.They obviously thought we could not see them.

  12. Just to confirm that little owls were taking adult little terns from a small and isolated population. Interesting to know of the similar issue with petrels...

  13. Lots of interesting comments.
    But, is this a discussion really people's views about native / non-native, and/or farmland birds?

    I do think there is a worthwhile (and probably quite deep and serious) debate to be had about native / non-native species, and how they are viewed, what are their impacts (perceived and evidence-based), and should control or even eradication be attempted.
    A topic for another day perhaps?

  14. The non-native debate is ongoing. Check out the BOU's proceedings from the Impacts of Non-natives conference at which covers some of the issues raised in these comments.


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