June 18, 2016

Bird on a wire

This week I saw a little owl in Suffolk, where I've just spent five days researching my next book. It was perching on a phone cable in the middle of the afternoon:


Admittedly my photo isn't very good, but it represents about what it looked like to the naked eye as I approached on foot. I could tell from the shape and small size that it wasn't the usual wood pigeon or crow, and looking through my binoculars I could clearly see that unmistakeable, cross-looking face. I watched for several minutes as it raised one foot and closed its eyes as though in sleep; as I moved closer it took off, provoking a series of alarm calls from startled songbirds on the other side of the tree.

Earlier on my walk I'd come across this pellet on a farm gate, but I think it's from a tawny owl or a buzzard rather than a little owl, going by the size. I plan to dissect it this week:


When I got back to my accommodation I recorded my little owl sighting here. Numbers are falling, with the UK population standing at about 5,700 pairs, and this study aims to try and discover more about where they are in order to conserve them.

It's only the second little owl I've ever seen. The first, somewhat surprisingly, was right in the heart of London, in Hyde Park. They were first recorded in the capital in 1758, but as this was before they were even introduced to the UK, in the late Victorian period, it's thought to have been a vagrant. By 1907 they were breeding in the London area; in 1923 one was seen in Battersea Park. By 2007 they were breeding in Regent's Park, the first breeding record in inner London.

Photo from littleowlproject.uk
For many years these lovely little immigrants were persecuted by gamekeepers who believed (wrongly) that they predated the chicks of game birds. Now, changing farming methods leading to a loss of prey species may be behind their current decline (they mostly eat beetles, moths, worms and small mammals). Data from the BTO shows that their numbers have fallen by 65% over a 25-year period, something which has accelerated since 2002. The Little Owl Project welcomes donations to help save our owls here.