Saturday, 21 May 2016

Bird of the week - Little owl

I have been trying without success to find a wild little owl to photograph.  These photos are of a captive reared bird and were taken with Alan Hewitt on a Birds of Prey photoshoot recently.  The owl's yellow eyes are characteristic of a daytime hunter.

The little owl (Athene noctua) is a favourite of many bird watchers and photographers.  It is said not to be native to the UK but was introduced in the late 19th century.  Unlike many alien invasive species, little owls found a niche and settled in without interfering with the native wildlife.

Little owls are very English birds and seem not to like living in Wales or Scotland.

The UK population is no more than 5000 pairs and is declining.

Although said to be a late 19th century introduction, the little owl did feature in the text of Thomas Bewick's A History of British Birds, published in 1797.  I think he may not have seen one by then as this illustration is from the supplement published in 1821.

In that he writes "It would appear from the accounts of ornithologists that this bird is seldom seen in Britain.  Temminck says it is found in almost every country in Europe, but never farther north than the 55th degree of latitude.  The drawing from which our cut was engraved, was taken from a specimen shot at Widdrington, January 1813, and we feel much obliged to Mr R. R. Wingate, of Newcastle, for his drawing, and the aid it affords us, to give a correct representation of this bird."

It is not Bewick's finest bird portrait but that's perhaps understandable if he had only ever seen one that had been shot. Bewick's description of the little owl's range interesting when one looks at the current distribution maps above, as Newcastle is 55° north and is still at the northern edge of the bird's range.

In Greek mythology the little owl was associated with Athene, the goddess of wisdom (hence Athene noctua), possibly because it could see in the dark.  The owl became a symbol of wisdom and knowledge throughout the western world. This painting of Athena with a little owl is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Attributed to the Brygos Painter - Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011), CC BY 2.5,

The little owl was also the owl of Minerva in Roman folklore but Romans considered owls to be harbingers of death.   The deaths of several Roman emperors, including the assassination of Julius Caesar, were signalled by the hooting of an owl.

You can listen to Kate Humble's BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on little owl here.

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