June 15, 2023

Return from extinction: Here’s how we’re bringing back the Little Owl

The Little Owl is one of the smallest owls in the world and is loved for its range of adorable movements and expressions. But right now, it’s critically endangered, due to intensive land use and habitat destruction.

That’s why in our fourth mission, we partnered with two pioneers who found a way to reverse that direction. And we’ll help them bring our feathered friends back – with the power of innovation and a plan that started 30 years ago. 

If you want to watch the Little Owl coming back, here’s the full video of our mission:

Let’s get to know the little Owl

What’s special about the little Owl is that it wants to be our neighbor. It’s a so-called synanthropic bird, which means it actually thrives close to human settlements rather than in complete wilderness. Or to be more precise: It needs the right mix of human settlement and intact natural diversity.

This makes the Little Owl an indicator species: If it breeds in an area, it shows that this areas’ ecosystem is in overall good health. 

And like a canary in a coal mine, the little Owl has gone completely extinct in many places, including Nuthe Nieplitz, a beautiful region one hour south of Berlin, where we met with our partners, Peter and Günter from LFV-NNN. Without them, this landscape would not be what it is today. 

What happened?

During East Germany’s socialist era, the Nuthe Nieplitz region was shaped by state-operated mega-farms that destroyed the landscape's once rich biodiversity. The giant monoculture fields left little space for old trees, wild bushes, kettle holes or wetlands where insects and other small animals could thrive. With all these habitats gone, the Little Owl entered into a steady decline which eventually led to its extinction. 

After the GDR fell and Germany reunited, conservationists knew they had a historic chance. Within two years, Peter and Günter’s team founded their organization, to reverse the damage done to nature and restore the rich cultural landscapes of their ancestors.

For three decades and on a scale of over 5,000 hectares, LFV-NNN replanted trees, restored old wetlands and transformed concrete deserts into natural fields. At one mega duck farm alone, they removed 10.000 tons of concrete from the landscape and turned it into a flowering meadow. 

They continuously purchased large swaths of land to dedicate it exclusively to sustainable farming practices by local farmers. This was actually quite controversial at the time, since after Germany’s reunification, everyone was eager to exploit the land around Berlin, the new capital, for maximum profit. At one point, over 60 golf courses were suggested for development around Berlin, as well as amusement parks and large infrastructure developments. But Peter and Günter fought for a different vision.

A beautiful green countryside landscape

While they didn’t win every battle, their conservation efforts were overall successful, as can be witnessed today, just by walking through this landscape with open eyes. So many places are brimming with life, that most cultural landscapes lack nowadays. 

The return of insect and plant species in the region is an unmistakable sign that things are moving in the right direction. And this brings us to the little Owl.

Time to come home

A while ago Peter and Günter gained the conviction that the Nuthe Nieplitz region had healed enough to provide a habitat for the Little Owl once again. In many places, agriculture is now more nature-friendly. People again embrace the historical rural structures of their villages. You can see small livestock, gardens behind the houses, horse farms and stables. 

So LFV NNN started a resettlement program for the Little Owl. Similar efforts have been tried  in other regions  –  and failed. But this one seems to get things right. Not least because of an innovative breakthrough.

The invention of “Family Rewilding”

LFV-NNN has developed a new rewilding method called “family rewilding” that the team is now pioneering in the region, with great promise. The process is fascinating:

STEP 1: Finding a Territory

It all starts in March, when the team goes out into the field, equipped with a simple bluetooth speaker to broadcast male courtship calls and listen if another male would respond to claim the territory. If they hear a response, that means last year's work has been successful and a Little Owl has already settled here. If they don’t, it means we just found a perfect spot for new owls to settle.

A bird cage home to owls

STEP 2: The parents are moving in

In April, an aviary is then placed at that location. Each aviary houses a pair of captive bred birds that are brought together from different regions each year in order to keep the gene pool variation high. This is also when the breeding season starts. The couple lays between 2-5 eggs and starts breeding in the safety of the aviary.

Bird boxes home to the little owl

STEP 3: The nestling period

After four weeks of breeding, in May, the young owls hatch, which are called “owlets”. The whole family is in the aviary now and Family Rewilding is in full motion.

So far, other re-settling projects have simply released young captive bred owls into the wild. With family rewilding, aviaries are directly placed in a fitting territory, so that both parents and owlets can get acquainted with their surroundings before both are released in summer. This increases the chances of success drastically, once they leave the aviary.

A cute little owl in its bird box

STEP 4: Setting up nesting boxes

It’s important to make sure that both bird generations will find a safe home once the aviary is opened for release. Little Owls need very specific structures like open barns and old fruit trees as nesting places. The former are getting harder to find nowadays. And while the latter have been replanted by LFV-NNN over the years, it will take another three decades until they reach the old age necessary, at which broken off branches create the kind of tree holes that Little Owls need as burrows.

The support we give

And that’s where our support comes in. The Planet Wild community is funding the purchase and installation of 25 new nesting boxes this year. They will be placed in the field as well close to villages to increase variety.

Three bird boxes in a row

Once the aviary is opened in summer, both the parents and owlets will start exploring the environment, learn to orient and find food. The parents will usually stay in the territory and find a breeding spot for next year. The young owlets will stay around for a while and are still cared for by the parents. Until eventually, they go on their own journey to find a partner and nest in one of the many places that have been setup, where they help build up a more and more self-sustaining population of little owls over the years. 

The Impact 

For a self-sustaining population Peter is estimating that they need 100 breeding pairs in the region. With almost 50 pairs documented, that goal is starting to move into reach. If successful, it will be proof that our environment can truly heal, and an example that others can follow. Already now, other conservationists have started adopting the family rewilding concept. 

That’s why we were excited to help push it further. And of course we’ll report back to Plant Wild members how many of the nesting boxes have been populated, when the field documentation is happening next spring.

A personal note 

A personal takeaway for me was to see how close to home rewilding can be. Our relationship to nature literally starts at our own doorsteps, and we all can support biodiversity in small ways and take pride in an insect rich garden or even balcony, knowing that it has ripple effects across the wider area.

Markus Gilles

Co-Founder, Planet Wild

A bison wearing sunglasses

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