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Little owl breeding behaviour

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 14:00 UK time, Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Guest blogger: Emily Joáchim on her passion for and research into little owls.

I've always been fascinated by the natural world and have been researching little owl ecology in Britain for the past three years. Using nest box cameras to help me, I'm investigating dispersal behaviour, breeding biology, diet and feeding behaviour.

Emily Joáchim holds a little owl

Me with one of the little owls from my project

I developed the nest box cameras with the systems engineers at the University of Reading to help me monitor little owl feeding behaviour during the breeding season. We installed the cameras into three little owl nest boxes as part of a long term raptor monitoring programme in Wiltshire that was initiated by Major Nigel Lewis in 1983.

Every time a little owl enters or exits the nest box, a video file is recorded. The footage enables me to look at how often food is brought to the nest site, the types of prey that are caught and whether it’s the mother or father little owl who is catching the food.

I feel very privileged to be working so closely with little owls. They have exciting personalities and I'm always amazed to observe how hard the parents work to raise their young. There's an element of mystery about them due to their mainly nocturnal behaviour.

It's really exciting to think of them working hard during the night, and every encounter with a little owl is as exciting as the first. Their wonderful, frowning expressions and almost quirky behaviour makes it a pleasure to observe them, whether it be watching them sunbathe on a warm summer’s afternoon or hunting at dusk.

A juvenile little owl held in the palm of a hand

A developed juvenile little owl with pale grey down

I really admire how hard the parents work during the breeding season and how brave the female is when she is incubating her eggs. We check how many eggs each female little owl has laid once a year and the female stays sitting on her eggs whilst we do so. They are remarkable birds.

The little owl was introduced into Britain during the late 19th century and rapidly spread throughout much of England and Wales. I decided that I wanted to work with them when they were reported to be in moderate decline in Britain. I'm hoping to learn more about the little owl ecology by looking at long term data sets, monitoring individual pairs and linking their breeding productivity with habitat.

A typical little owl brooding period:

The mother incubates the hatchlings almost continuously for their first five days. At this point they're covered in white down and their eyes are closed. They can't thermo regulate so they rely on their mother to keep them warm and huddle up together if she briefly leaves the nest site. The father does most of the hunting at this stage. The juveniles can stand on their talons after a few days, but remain very wobbly and can only walk a few steps.

A juvenile little owl inside it's nest box

A juvenile little owl inside its nest box

When the juveniles are seven days old, their down changes from white to pale gray. Their talons and tarsus are continuing to develop and they are a bit more steady on their feet. The mother will start hunting more to keep up with the juveniles increasing food demand. Prey items include moths, worms, small mammals, small birds (sparrows, finches etc) and ground beetles.

Hunting usually takes place at dusk, during the night, and slows down at dawn. They are extremely hard working parents with the male flying in and out of the box with prey items whilst the mother does most of the provisioning.

If you'd like to find out more or get in contact, visit my research page.

Emily Joáchim is a final year PhD Research Student at the University of Reading. She studied Zoology at the University of Reading and has volunteered for various conservation organisations including Avon Wildlife Trust, the Institute of Zoology and the Hawk Conservancy Trust. The little owl project has various sponsors including the Hawk and Owl Trust, World Owl Trust and Aspira Fund.

Watch our film about Emily and her little owls on Springwatch, 8pm 31 May



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