June 21, 2023

Meet the Little Owl: Europe’s most adorable bird facing an uncertain future

Planet Wild Team

They're cute, they’re small, they’re fluffy. The Little owl is one of Europe’s most adorable birds... but in some areas it’s critically endangered. This is partly due to habitat destruction, agricultural practices and the prevalence of monocultures in our natural environment.

Little owl: Fast facts

Little owl facts: infographic

Little owl habitats: Where can you find Little owls?

Little owls are native to parts of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. Around 25% of their population lives in Europe. They can also be found in the British Isles and New Zealand but they are non-native to these regions. They were introduced during the late 19th century.

Their preferred habitat is open areas of ground with lots of nooks and crannies to make nests. That’s why they love orchards, bushes, tree-lined dirt roads, kettle holes, wetlands or flower-rich fallow lands. This is where insects and many other small animals tend to thrive, which is the owl's primary food source. 

Trees standing in a row in a field

Adorably, Little owls want to be our neighbors, and find the most comfort near human settlements. They are what’s called a ‘synanthropic species,’ which means they thrive best close to human settlements rather than in complete wilderness. Or to be more precise: they need the right blend of human settlement and natural diversity.

Little owl characteristics: How to spot a Little owl?

Little owl’s usually have a plump, round body with a short tail and small round wings. Their feathers are predominantly grey-brown, mottled with white spots. Little owls are a monomorphic species which means the male and female owls look the same!

Little owls are nocturnal, like most owls. They hunt from dusk till dawn, feeding on small insects, small mammals, frogs and reptiles. These owls are also a delicious snack for other nighttime hunters, including genets and larger birds of prey. 

True to their name, Little owls are small and can easily hide in their surroundings. You might have a hard time spotting them in the wild—but you’ll be able to hear them! Their common call is quite distinctive; a repetitive series of whistles that sound like "kew-kew-kew." They also produce hissing and chirping sounds during courtship or territorial disputes. When excited, the owl’s call is more explosive and cat-like. 

The adorable Little Owl

The best time of day to look for the owls is either early morning or at dusk—and take a torch with you! These little guys like to hide in tree cavities, barn rafters and other safe, dark spaces out the way of predators.

Are little owls endangered?

While their global population is mostly stable, in some areas these little guys are struggling to survive. This is because they are being driven out of their homes by human activity. Their nesting sites are under threat from farming, pesticide use, big agriculture, ground clearance, and various other human interventions. This has resulted in their decline on the European mainland, putting them on the Species of European Conservation Concern

If Little owls go extinct in an area, it can have a big effect on that ecosystem. For example, Little owls tend to nest in tree cavities or abandoned burrows, often utilizing old trees or rundown structures. Their presence and nesting activities contribute to the creation and maintenance of these habitats. 

They also feed on insects and small mammals, helping control these populations. When the owls are no longer around, an increase in population could result in ecological imbalance and knock-on effects. Little owls are part of a complex ecosystem made up of many interactive species, so their disappearance can be felt all over the food chain. 

This usually very adaptable species has been declining for a while, which is why we set out to help these little guys out in central Germany!

Do you want to help us fund more missions just like this one? Download the app and become a Planet Wild member now!

5 things you didn’t know about Little owls

1. Little owls are monogamous

Little owls are a species that mates for life. These birds form long-term pair bonds, sharing body contact when they sleep and keeping each other free of ticks and dirt. The mama owl can lay between 3 to 5 eggs at a time, and both parents share incubation duties. It takes around 28 to 30 days for the eggs to hatch into baby owls, called “owlets.” The little owlets fledge after 3-4 weeks and remain close to their nesting site for most of their lives. 

Two Little Owls in love

2. In German, Little owls are called “Kauz”

Little owl’s have been given the name “Kauz” in German. As a result, the word “kauzig” has developed to describe someone as being “odd” or “strange” — just like these little birds! 

cute Little Owl

3. They have a lot of significance in folklore 

Little owls have long been part of folklore all over Europe. For thousands of years, some ancient cultures believed the presence of Little owls carried omens and could predict the future. Furthermore in other ancient mythologies, Little owls were associated with the underworld. Because they’re a nocturnal species and able to navigate in the dark, people connected them to spirits and spookiness. 

4. They are named after the Greek goddess Athena

Their scientific name—Athene noctua—was given to these owls by bird expert Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1769. He named these little birds after the Greek goddess Athena, who was regularly pictured with owls on coins, statues, and other artifacts dedicated to her. This was because for Athena— and the ancient Greeks—the Little owl was a symbol of wisdom and insight. 

Goddess Athena statue

5. They are an indicator species

Little owls are considered an indicator species. This means that if they breed in an area then the ecosystem is in good health. When Little owls return to an area, it shows us that something is going right. Developments in modern farming is one of the biggest drivers of habitat destruction, which in turn has led to the decline of the Little owl’s most important nesting spots.

As people in some parts of Europe are returning to more traditional forms of farming, i.e. becoming less reliant on monocultures and rewilding local farmland, local ecosystems are starting to flourish once again. This has also led to the return of the Little owl in some regions, indicating that the ecosystem is healthy again. 

Other examples of indicator species include amphibians like frogs, certain lichens, river otters and wood storks. For ecologists, the return of these species are all signs that an ecosystem is thriving. 

Instagram post about the little owl

In our latest mission, Planet Wild is helping these adorable Little owls make a comeback in the rural German Nuthe Nieblitz region.

About Planet Wild

At Planet Wild, we are committed to rewilding the planet through monthly missions that work directly with grassroots organizations dedicated to combating the biodiversity crisis. When you become a Planet Wild member, your contribution will directly fund innovative and exciting projects all over the world, helping you make a difference from home.

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