Little owls 

We can’t forget about the Little guys so last week saw me check some of the Little owl boxes that we monitor. Cheshire is a fantastic county for this species, a true dairy farming county I remember as a child knowing of loads of Little owl sites in old field oaks where the cattle grazed the pastures short and their cow pats attracted invertebrates. Sadly a lot of these sites have disappeared as more and more farmers have gone out of milk and land use has changed, the Little owl has no doubt been affected by this change in the landscape and locating active pairs has never been more important. One thing we have noticed is there are still pockets of healthy Little owl populations and the farm I visited last week is a great example of this! 

Little owls will readily take to a nest box which is a blessing as often when they are in a natural cavity monitoring breeding productivity is very difficult if not impossible. This particular farm has 4 nest boxes ( 2 in the front fields and two at the rear) placed in field or hedgerow oak, the fields are still grazed by the cattle and I think this is what the Little owls need as this year has proved! It is also worth pointing out that Little owls are very resilient towards disturbance when done correctly AND under licence. 

When checking the boxes I like to try and gauge how productive the pair are by counting eggs. Little owls like the female above will sit incredibly tight and often have to be moved to one side to check under them.

 I started by checking the two boxes in front of the farm, usually this farm has one pair and in good years two pairs and it is the front of the farm that is often the preferred breeding site. The first box I checked to my delight had not only the female sat on two eggs but the male snuggled next to her, this isn’t unusual but I don’t tend to get the male as he will be sat nearby watching, as it had been a wet morning I presume he was taking shelter. Neither bird had a BTO ring on them I had never met them before so both birds were rung and then left in peace back in the box. 

I then headed over to the second box in the front of the farm which is no more than 300 metres from the box with the pair. This box on several occasions has had squirrels in it and when used the resident female I had rung two years previously but to my surprise on lifting the lid I found another pair of Little owls. I removed both birds from the box gently and although they were sat tightly in the box they were not incubating anything but on closer inspection the female had a large brood patch (a pink fleshy area on her abdomen where she incubates the eggs). Neither of these birds had rings on so it was another new pair, I placed an individual ring on each bird and quickly placed them back in the box.

I have had pairs this close before and it goes to show what a great farm this is for Little owls but I couldn’t help and wonder where the old female had gone. Had she perished or had she been ousted by the new pairs? 

I didn’t have long before I found out as I went to check the two boxes behind the farm. Inside the first of the two boxes I was greeted by the old female (she’s at least 4) sat on two very young chicks and two eggs. This was great to see and I left her in peace, I will return in 10-12 days to see how the chicks have progressed. 

The final and fourth box contained a young brood of Jackdaws. I’m really pleased with the outcome of these boxes this year and as you can see from the picture below there are plenty of rodents being brought into the box as its not just invertebrates which the owls depend on.

It often surprises people how quickly birds of prey develop and grow, the owlets above barely two days old will be pretty much fully grown and scurrying about in 4 weeks. The image below shows the male from one of the boxes with an interesting looking eye. I asked a friend and specialist avian vet about the cause of this, his response was possibly an injury or puncture wound to the eye which has healed itself. The owl certainly seemed very healthy. 

It intrigued me as to how big this population might be. It’s time to cast the net a little further and also offer the young leaving these nest boxes somewhere to set up breeding territories so more boxes will be erected.

We’ll report back in due course. Thanks for reading!