Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Little Owl of Athens

See earlier post on the ancient origins and associations of the Goddess Athena. From The Bird box - little owl Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 26/01/2008 Daniel Butler finds the little owl a big attraction Winter is a great time for bird-watching. This is when many species are caught up in the search for calories to combat the cold and, with no leaves on the trees, they are easier to spot. Take the little owl, which is now particularly active at dusk as it hunts for small creatures. The best sightings are of "still hunting" individuals perched on a branch or telephone pole. Often the first indication is the angry calls of mobbing songbirds, after which identifying the small, stumpy, silhouette is simple. Their buoyant and slightly undulating flight on broad wings, low above the ground, is also characteristic. There is little in size or plumage to split the sexes, but their drab appearance is compensated by glaring yellow eyes and white "eyebrows", which give them a look of strong disapproval. Such sightings may be fairly common today, but they are a relatively recent phenomenon, for little owls are not native. Their natural habitat is southern Europe and Asia Minor, although they are particularly associated with Athens. Greek mythology linked these hunters with the goddess of wisdom (indeed the scientific name, Athene noctua, means "Athene by night"). Their characteristic forms were stamped on coins and over time they became synonymous with the city itself, thus accounting for the association of owls with wisdom. Their presence here is down to the Victorian passion for "improving" our native fauna. Most introductions failed, while others - notably grey squirrels and muntjac - were environmental disasters, but little owls were neither of these. Lt Col Meade-Waldo was responsible for the first successful owl releases in Kent in the 1870s. The main credit, however, goes to the fourth Lord Lilford, who introduced scores to his Northamptonshire estate near Oundle in the 1890s. The birds increased rapidly, spreading across England and Wales, and as far north as the Scottish Borders. Their success was largely because they flew into a vacant ecological niche. Like all owls, they eat small mammals and the occasional roosting bird, but, unlike the four larger native species, most of their calories come from insects and worms. Better still, their nocturnal nature means they face no competition for food from other birds, so their main rivals are hedgehogs and badgers. The little owls also thrived because their ideal hunting ground is mixed farmland, where they lay two to five eggs each spring in hollow trees, holes in walls or even rabbit burrows. The English landscape of the early 20th century was perfect, with its scattered hedges, copses, parkland and orchards. Despite being comparatively easy to spot, little owls are very difficult to count. A study in 2001 by the Hawk and Owl Trust suggested that there were probably around 7,000 pairs. These were thought to be declining slightly, but the latest research by Durham University and the RSPB suggests they could benefit significantly from climate change. Surely the thought of more frequent sightings of this diminutive hunter along hedges and lanes is a comforting chink of hope amid today's general environmental gloom?

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