Tim Melling – Little Owl

Tim writes: Although Little Owls look totally at home in Britain they are a nineteenth century introduction that had never been recorded here historically (not even as bones or fossils). The first attempt at establishing Little Owls in Britain was actually in Yorkshire at Walton Park near Wakefield in 1834 when Charles Waterton released five Little Owls that he had brought from Rome the previous year. These vanished without establishing themselves. They were also released in Norfolk and Sussex in the 1870s but these failed too. E G B Meado-Waldo released dozens of birds between 1874 and 1900 in Kent (between Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks) and they first nested in 1879 and were well established and widespread by 1900. The most famous introduction was near Oundle in Northamptonshire where Lord Lilford (Thomas Littleton Powys, 4th Baron Lilford 1833 –1896) had been releasing birds for several years and they first bred in the wild in Northants in 1889, ten years after they first bred in Kent. By 1892 they had spread to Woburn, 44 miles to the south, and in the next few decades they colonised much of England, Wales and eventually bred in Scotland in the 1950s.

Most of this information came from an article written in the very first volume of the journal British Birds: WITHERBY, H.F. and N.F. TICEHURST. 1908. The spread of the Little Owl from the chief centres of its introduction. Brit. Birds 1: 335–342.

I photographed this one on a dry stone wall on the edge of the Peak District Moors in West Yorkshire

Taken with Nikon D500 and Nikkor 300mm f4 lens with a 1.4x converter at f5.6 ISO 1250 1/1250s


Mark writes:  many thanks to Tim for a supply of great images through the year and some really interesting stories to go with them too.


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5 Replies to “Tim Melling – Little Owl”

  1. It’s hard not to treat Little Owls as an honorary native as they are just across the Channel and might have made it here naturally had circumstances been slightly different. I certainly think of them as ‘less non-native’ than things like parakeets and ruddy ducks if such a thing is possible.

  2. Like all Birds of Prey they now show us the shocking way we are treating this planet with one of its main foods on a massive decline - Dung Beetle!! Cumbrian birds are now hard to find when in the 1980s they were common around my house. Hard to think I will ever have 6 species of owl in a year from around the house!!

  3. "Most of the UK's Little Owls are thought to originate from successful introductions during the late 19th century. However, there are Little Owl sightings and fossil records which pre-date the first documented release of this owl in 1843."


    1. Thanks Ed. Your comment made me double check my two main references on the fossil and sub-fossil records of birds in Britain. The History of British Birds (Yalden and Albarella 2009) does not even mention Little Owl, while The History of the Birds in Britain (Reid-Henry and Harrison 1988) states " A Pleistocene record from Chudleigh in Devon, is in fact based on a Sparrowhawk bone, but it appears to have been present in an early interglacial about 500,000 years ago". But Colin Harrison's cautious wording "it appears" coupled with Derek Yalden's lack of any reference in his authoritative book, strongly suggests there is no evidence of Little Owl from Britain in the fossil record. Derek Yalden was a friend of mine and I chatted to him about many fossil record issues while he was co-writing his book. He told me that he double-checked all unverified records where the specimen was still in existence, and many turned out to be incorrectly identified. The website that mentions fossil records (plural) has no references.

    2. I just realised that I haven't addressed the subject of sightings prior to the nineteenth century introductions (as opposed to fossil records). The BOURC categorise Little Owl as C1 (Naturalized introduced species - species that have occurred only as a result of introduction). Nineteenth century records in particular were clouded by the issue of fraud as British specimens commanded a higher price. BOURC were satisfied that there are no reliable records of natural vagrants from the continent in Britain. No Little Owls ringed in Britain or Ireland have been recorded abroad, and no Little Owls ringed abroad have been recorded in Britain or Ireland. Very few ringed birds have dispersed beyond 50km and most were recorded within 10km of the place they were ringed. In Shetland there are more records of Scops Owl than Little Owl. So returning to the website, there are indeed reported sightings and specimens that pre-date the known introductions. But these records are not considered to be authentic.


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