Friday, 14 September 2012

Our engaging little owl

Despite its small size the little owl boasts a big personality, much of it expressed through the piercing yellow eyes with their black ‘eyeliner’ rims. This owl can be seen across the county, though it is rather thinly distributed compared to its status in certain other counties. To see one on a walk or while out birdwatching is, therefore, a real treat. Sometimes the bird may be flushed from some unseen perch, flying away with a deeply undulating flight. On other occasions the owl will remain perched, watching intently and occasionally bobbing its head in comedic fashion. These pronounced head movements are a feature of owls more widely. Known as motion parallax, the movements artificially change to the location of an object being viewed on the owl’s retina, something that increases the owl’s ability to estimate the location, distance and motion of an object.

The presence of the little owl in Norfolk owes its origins to introductions that took place during the 1800s, the owl successfully established in Northamptonshire and, later, other counties. A few Norfolk records pre-date these introductions and probably refer to genuine vagrants, arriving on the coast after a long sea crossing. In 1862, for example, one was found on a fishing smack 10 miles off Yarmouth. Birds first bred here in the early 1900s and by the 1930s the species was commonly noted breeding across the county.

Little owls seem to do well on the large Norfolk shooting estates. Not long after the little owl became established here concerns were expressed that it might take gamebirds and their chicks. However, a detailed study by Alice Hibbert-Ware at the BTO revealed the diet to be dominated by invertebrates and small mammals, suggesting that the owl was a beneficial addition to our avifauna. Nevertheless, on some shooting estates the little owl remained the unfortunate victim of traps set for other birds of prey.

Although it is not unusual to see little owls during the day, they are essentially crepuscular in nature. Activity peaks in the hours immediately after dusk and again just before dawn, matching the period when favoured prey are most active. Hunting from a perch is a favourite means of locating large beetles, small mammals and earthworms, the owl dropping onto its prey with a short flight. Sometimes the owl will hunt while on the ground and may run short distances to grab at an unsuspecting worm or other delicacy. They can be very adaptable however. A pair living on an offshore island specialised in taking storm petrels from their burrows, much to the consternation of the warden. Even he was struck by their personality, solving the problem by relocating the birds to the mainland.

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