Little owl

Little owl– Athene noctua


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Strigiformes
  • Family: Strigidae
  • Genre: Athene
  • Species: Athene noctua 

Identification characters

The little owl is a species of small night owl, often found in villages near people’s homes. Body length is 23-27 cm, wing span is 50 – 57 cm. Weighs 162 – 206 grams.

The bird has a compact shape, large, rounded head, flattened crown, long legs and short tail. The sexes are similar, the female being slightly larger. The head and dorsal side are brown with white spots, and the ventral side is white with vertically oriented brown spots. Above the yellow eyes there is a pronounced white eyebrow. The oblique orientation of the white eyebrows above the large yellow eyes, the beak with the hooked tip of the jaw, gives the cuckoo the appearance of an extremely serious man, the cuckoo being a symbol of wisdom. 

Although in the folklore of many peoples the song of the cuckoo is a harbinger of death and various misfortunes, this belief has no basis in fact. Attracted by the insects that swarm in the brightly lit areas, it often makes its appearance in places where people gather for wakes, and thus has attracted this unfortunate fame, which has over time brought it the hatred of people and their attempt to unjustly exterminate this otherwise very well-known and sympathetic bird.

The name of the genus comes from the name of the goddess Athena, represented in Greek mythology accompanied by a cuckoo, symbol of wisdom. It is the emblem of the city of Athens. The goddess of wisdom accompanied by the cucuvea also appears on the logo of the Romanian Academy. It appears on the reverse of many Greek coins. The species name noctua, is the Latin name of the species of night bird of prey, companion of the goddess Minerva, the Roman equivalent of the goddess of wisdom of Athens.


The little owl is spread over a very wide area, spanning three continents: from Western Europe and Northwest Africa to Mongolia, China and Vietnam. In Europe it is absent in the north of the continent. The range of the species is bordered to the north by Latvia and to the south by the Sahara Desert and the Arabian Peninsula. In Britain it was introduced in the 19th century and recently in New Zealand.

Living environment and biology of the species

The little owl is a species of night owl frequently found in localities. It is adaptable to windy and rainy climates. It chooses warm, even semi-arid areas, but is also adapted to areas with frequent wind and rain. However, the species is vulnerable to frost and heavy snowfall. It avoids compact forests and dense vegetation, but also swamps or farmland.

It can be found from the seashore and lowlands in the northern and central parts of the range, up to altitudes of 2000 m in Georgia and Armenia, in ravines, valleys, gullies, rocky river walls and dry unforested mountains.

The little owl feeds on insects with crepuscular and nocturnal activity, earthworms, rodents, birds, amphibians, small snakes. It is especially active in the morning, evening and early night, hunting from a high vantage point. It is one of the few diurnal owls, and can often be seen during the day. It stalks prey perched on a perch and swoops down on it, sometimes hovering low above the ground. It also hunts on the ground looking for beetles, earthworms and various larvae. It is not as upright as other owls. When agitated, it bows, flies quickly and undulates over long distances, like a woodpecker. In the wild it has a longevity of three years. Reaches sexual maturity at the age of one.

The cuckoo nests in tree hollows, on rocks, in hollows, ravines and on buildings, sometimes in the attic or even in the chimney of houses. It does not refuse artificial burrows either. In February, at the beginning of the breeding season, the males establish a small territory. The partners court each other by calling, pecking, and the male feeds the female during this period. Monogamous pairs stay together for at least a year. Sometimes they stay together for life. Each year, they return to the same nest. Before settling in, they enlarge the nest and clean it thoroughly.

In late March and early April, the female lays 2-5 whitish eggs measuring 34 x 29 mm. The female incubates them for 27-28 days. The chicks are fed by both parents. They become able to fly 30-35 days after hatching. The female lays two eggs per year.

Threats and conservation measures

Little owls may be threatened by loss and alteration of habitat, breeding areas and aggregation, including land use change, contamination by agricultural products, unavailability of food, poaching.

Conservation measures aim to ensure adequate food resources and maintenance in areas adjacent to breeding sites, prohibit destruction of occupied nests or nesting sites, conserve, create and promote vegetated land appropriate to the requirements of the species, maintain and prohibit the burning of stubble, maintain appropriate stubble management in areas where it has traditionally been carried out, maintain and enhance corridors between areas of spontaneous grassland including trees, reduce agricultural chemicals, apply low toxic and persistent chemicals.

Particular attention is paid to measures to ensure the tranquillity of the species’ breeding areas, monitoring and avoiding illegal trapping and nest destruction. A measure to ensure bird safety takes into account the management of telecommunication or power cables, with the siting of new cables adapted to national standards. Areas where road mortality is high need to be identified so that measures can be taken to limit it.

Control and enforcement of hunting legislation against poaching is adequately done through cooperation between environmental protection organisations, hunting organisations gendarmerie and the Environmental Guard.

It is essential to inventory breeding areas, both actual and potential, to identify migration, feeding and aggregation areas important for conservation, and to promote studies on various aspects of the species’ biology, including demographic parameters.


    • Fântână Ciprian, Kovács Istvan, Benkő Zoltán, Daròczi Szilárd, Domșa Cristian, Veres-Szászka Judit (editors), 2022, Atlas of bird species of community interest in Romania, 2nd edition – Love birds, save nature!, Project financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Large Infrastructure Operational Programme 2014-2020, Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests – Biodiversity Directorate, scientific coordination Romanian Ornithological Society and Association for the Protection of Birds and Nature Milvus Group, produced by EXCLUS PROD SRL, p. 310-311;
    • Lars Svensson, Hakan Delin, 1988, Photographic guide to the birds of Britain and Europe, Owls, 190, Chancellor Press, London
    • Svensson (text and maps), 2017, Guide to bird identification. Europe and the Mediterranean area, translation and adaptation in Romanian: Romanian Ornithological Society, Emanuel Ștefan Baltag, Sebastian Bugariu, Alida Barbu, p.232;
    • Radu Dimitrie, 1983, Mic atlas ornitologic, Edit. Albatros, Bucharest, p. 143
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