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A Window onto the World of Little Owls

A Window onto the World of Little Owls

I have begun an ambitious new project to install cameras inside a little owl nest so that I can learn more about the secret life of Britain’s smallest owl. The plan is still in its infancy and I have a lot to do before the breeding season begins.

little owls
Little Owls Always Look Cross

Little owls stand at just 20cm tall and have piercing yellow eyes topped with light-coloured ‘brows’ that make them look as if they are permanently frowning. These cross expressions make them especially endearing.

little owl
Frowning on the Hand Rearing of Owls

As a boy I raised one by hand. Gizmo, as I named him, had fallen from his nest at just three weeks old and I took him into our home, fed him beetles and taught him to ride on the handlebars of my bicycle. He even used to help me paint! I was young then and didn’t know any better. Nowadays I would avoid hand-rearing a wild owl and instead try to restore a chick to its nest as soon as possible.

A Nest Box Designed to be a Perfect a Art Backdrop
Which is how it was that I came upon a little owl family this summer. A worker on a neighbouring farm told me he had found an owl chick at the base of an ash tree and asked me to check it out.
It turned out that the owlet had fallen from a nest box I had put up myself years ago. Made from a fallen elm trunk it had stood empty for so long that I had almost given up on this box, but it was an attractive one and I had always hoped it would be occupied as I knew it’s slit-shaped entrance hole would make an attractive backdrop to a potential painting. 

A Little Owl with an Eye Problem

Arriving at the spot, I noticed the small fluffy chick near the roots of the ash. As I approached, it turned its head to look at me. One of its eyes was closed and it was clear to see that the owl had a bad eye infection. Realising this wasn’t going to be a simple case of popping the owl chick back into its nest, I placed it carefully in a carry box ready to take home for treatment.

Checking the Box for More Little Owls
Before I headed home, I couldn’t resist taking a look inside the nest box to see if this little owl had any siblings. I propped my ladder against the ash, climbed up and carefully lifted the lid. Seeing three pairs of beady eyes staring back at me, I slowly closed the lid and retreated. Back at home I contacted Ryedale Rehabilitation for advice on how to treat the little owlet’s eye.

The Little Owl Nest Box
In the meantime, I set up a hide opposite the nest. I have photographed little owls at their nest at least five times before and I was excited at this new opportunity to watch the chicks before they fledged.
That evening I was settling into my new hide with my cameras when a little owl chick’s head popped out of the nest entrance, nodding inquisitively at the outside world.

Three Little Owlets Head Bobbing
I grabbed the first three cameras to hand and three little owls appeared, one for each of my cameras. It was comical watching this trio of tiny owl heads jog up and down in the entrance to the owl box.
Their heads bobbed so vigorously they kept banging them on the top of the nest entrance. I had forgotten how much I loved watching little owls until this moment.

The peace was shattered by the raucous call of a crow. It landed in the tree above the owls and as it did so all three chicks peered up into the canopy, their eyes dilating and their feathers tightening against their bodies.

little owl chicks
The little owls looked up from the nest entrance in unision
Then from a hawthorn bush to my left I heard an adult little owl call out a shrill warning. On hearing this, the chicks rushed for cover. There was a flurry of feathers and fluff as they all tried to fit back through the small entrance hole at once and then at last, they were safely back in the nest.
An Adult Little Owl Comes in to Feed the Chicks

I waved my hand out of the right-hand side of my hide and the crow took flight. I didn’t want it hanging around – I have seen crows try to kill little owl chicks before. Not long afterwards the adult owl came into view and I watched it settle on a nearby branch and carefully preen its feathers. Abruptly, it paused its preening and peered hard at the grass beneath my hide. Then the owl flew down, caught an orange underwing moth and flew up with it in its beak to feed the chicks. After devouring the moth, the chicks resumed their head-bobbing at the entrance to the nest box.

By the time I left the hide that night I was buzzing with excitement and couldn’t wait to return again the following night.Little Owl Watch

Over the following two weeks I treated the owlet at home with eye drops twice a day and visited the rest of the brood each evening. It wasn’t long before the chicks became more confident and began taking their first, short, test flights around the ash tree. Occasionally one would fall to the ground and climb right back up the tree, using its sharp talons to cling to the bark and flapping its wings as it fly-walked back to safety.

Little Owl Chicks Can Climb Vertical Tree Trunks

I have seen little owl chicks do this before and never fail to be amazed at their skill. If they get tired, they simply hook their beaks into the bark to pause, before continuing to scale a vertical trunk.
It was two weeks before the owlet with the eye infection was well enough to return to the nest. I was worried its family may now not accept it back and so it was with some unease that I arrived early one evening to place the chick back into the nest.

Returning the Injured Little Owl to the Nest

But the owlet scurried through the entrance hole as if it had never been away and I retreated to my hide back to watch. First two owl chicks emerged at the entrance, then the owlet I had just put back in was alongside them and all seemed well. But then the fourth chick came out and the mood changed. This owlet began to peck at the feet of the newly recovered chick.

Within minutes the adult male arrived, but it too pecked and even head-butted the newly-returned chick. I watched, helpless. After half an hour things were calmer and the adult began to feed grubs and worms to the chicks, but I noticed wasn’t giving any to the owlet I had reintroduced to the nest.

At Last, the Healed Little Owl is Accepted
little owl
Gradually, the adult stopped head-butting the chick and began to preen it

This chick flew up into the tree and the adult followed it, again trying to knock the chick over with hits head. The poor chick chittered in protest but then, gradually, and ever so gently, the pushing turned to preening. I let out a huge sigh of a relief when I saw the chick fly back to the nest where the adult then fed it. Later that week all four chicks left the nest and took up residence together in an old rabbit hole further down the valley. I won’t forget the sight of them standing together in the evening sun and then all diving for cover as I approached. And I can’t wait to see if my plan to watch these gorgeous owls inside their nest pays off.

Little Owl Paintings

My Collection

Over the years little owls have inspired a number of paintings. Below is a selection of my favourites with links to each on my website if you are interested to know more.

little owl painting
Little Owl in Evening Light | Limited Edition Print | Shop Here
Little Owls And Beetle | Limited Edition Print | Shop Here




little owl painting
Inquisitive Little Owl | Limited Edition Print | Shop Here
little owl painting
Little Owl on Fence Post | Original Painting | Bespoke Available on Request

6 comments on A Window onto the World of Little Owls

  1. Thank you for this truly endearing story of your encounters with little owls. I am looking forward to seeing your project come to life. I have a signed print of the little owls and beetle. I will never tire of looking at it. Thank you Robert! Love from OZ.

  2. Oh what a wonderful encounter with these beautiful Little Owls. My heart was in my mouth as I read about the one you looked after when you returned it to the nest. Very much looking forward to your new project coming to fruition, Robert.

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