Little Owl (Athene noctua)



Little Owl © Simon Booth

Little Owl © Simon Booth

Little Owls were found in 208 tetrads in winter. In 54 of them the species had not been recorded in the breeding season, whilst there were 168 tetrads with breeding season presence where it was not found in winter. There was no consistent pattern to these seasonal changes, except perhaps for a withdrawal from the highest land. These bald statistics seem to counter the normal view that Little Owls are sedentary. Nationally, the median dispersal distances of ringed birds are 2 km for adults and 7 km for birds ringed as chicks (Migration Atlas). It could be that birds were under-recorded, but the BTO Winter Atlas regards them as being ‘more easily located in winter than the other British owls’, with birds often seen in daylight and calling frequently, especially in late winter.

The winter habitat codes show 72% of records on farmland, mostly grassland and hedgerows, with 15% human sites and 10% woodland. There were only four records each in scrub or semi-natural grassland, with none on saltmarsh. They depend on trees for winter shelter as much as for nesting, with birds less often occupying isolated buildings and cavities like rabbit burrows, perhaps accounting for their scarcity and absence in winter from many open areas including saltmarsh (BTO Winter Atlas). An inability to tolerate prolonged periods of ice and snow cover excludes them from many upland areas.

Fieldworkers submitted 140 counts of Little Owls in winter, mostly of one or two birds, but four records of three birds and three counts of four birds, in 2004/ 05 at Hockenhull Platts (SJ46S) and in 2005/ 06 near Burton (SJ37H) and near Tabley (SJ77J).

We have little indication of the Little Owl’s former status in the county. Coward and Oldham treated it with the disdain that introduced species often induce. Boyd noted their rapid colonisation of mid-Cheshire from about 1926, but did not comment on their winter distribution, and Bell (1962) added nothing beyond quoting some fifty-year-old records.

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