Little owl

Athene noctua (Scopoli, 1769)

Order: Strigiformes

Family: Strigidae

New Zealand status: Introduced

Conservation status: Introduced and Naturalised

Other names: German owl

Geographical variation: Twelve subspecies are recognised, but the identity of those introduced to New Zealand has not been determined

Little owl. Adult. Christchurch, September 2011. Image © Philip Griffin by Philip Griffin Philip Griffin © 2011

Little owl. Adult. Christchurch, September 2011. Image © Philip Griffin by Philip Griffin Philip Griffin © 2011

The little owl is a small grey-brown-and-white streaked owl that is widespread throughout the drier open country of the eastern and northern South Island. Unlike the morepork, they are often seen perched out in the open during the day. Little owls were introduced to New Zealand from Germany between 1906 and 1910, with the intention that they would help control the numbers of small introduced birds, which were becoming a pest in grain and fruit crops. With the exception of one pair released in Rotorua, all were liberated in the South Island. Little owls bob up and down if startled and have an undulating flight pattern.

Identification

Little owls are small, plump grey-brown owls, much streaked and spotted with white. They have pale grey facial discs either side of their face just below the eyes, and prominent white bands above the bright yellow eyes and below the chin. The legs have thick white feathering all the way down to the pale yellow-grey toes. They are more active during the day than moreporks, and are often seen perched in the open during daylight hours, on power poles, fence posts, roof-tops or in trees.

Voice: the distinctive ‘kiew’ contact call of the little owl is a common evening sound throughout lowland Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

Similar species: the little owl is slightly smaller and much paler than the morepork. The little owl also has a shorter tail and a more flattened top to its head. The two species rarely occur in the same sites and habitats, as moreporks are scarce or absent from much of the dry, open farmland of eastern and northern South Island, and little owls do not live in forest.

Distribution and habitat

Little owls are restricted to the South Island. They are widely distributed throughout the drier eastern areas and are more common towards the coast. They are also found in the Nelson region, but are rare on the West Coast. They inhabit farmland and urban areas, often around farm buildings, small stands of open trees and hedgerows.

Population

A total of 219 little owls were imported and released by the Otago Acclimatisation Society between 1906 and 1910. Additional birds were released in the Canterbury region around the same time. They spread rapidly, and are common throughout the eastern South Island.

Ecological and economic impacts

Little owls were introduced with the intension that they would limit populations of introduced finches and sparrows, and thereby reduce crop damage. There is no evidence that they have been effective in this, nor are little owls considered a significant threat as a predator to any native bird species. They are a major predator of the endangered Cromwell chafer beetle (Prodontria lewisi), and may limit the beetle’s population. The largely non-overlapping distributions of little owl and morepork are suggestive of competitive exclusion. This may be driven more by habitat preferences than direct interactions, but this has not been studied.

Breeding

Breeding occurs during the months of October to January. It is generally a cavity nester and will use trees, stacked hay bales, old buildings, banks or rocky crevices. The female is solely responsible for  incubation of the 2-5 white eggs, which takes about 28 days. The chicks leave the nest after about 33 days.

Behaviour and ecology

Little owls are solitary and are most often seen perched in the open in the late afternoon. They mainly hunt at dawn and dusk, often feeding on the ground, where they walk and run freely (unlike morepork).

Food

In New Zealand, little owls mainly eat insects (particularly beetles, also caterpillars, earwigs and moths); they eat small mammals, small birds, lizards and frogs.

Weblinks

http://blx1.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob7570.htm

http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/l/littleowl/index.aspx

http://www.wingspan.co.nz/birds_of_prey.html

References

Bull, P.C.; Gaze, P.D.; Robertson, C.J.R. 1985. The atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand. Ornithological Society of New Zealand Inc.

Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 1996. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.

Higgins, P.J. 1999 (ed.). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 4, parrots to dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Robertson, C.J.R.; Hyvönen, P.; Fraser, M.J.; Pickard, C.R. 2007. Atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand 1999-2004. The Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Wellington.

Watt, J.C. 1979. Conservation of the Cromwell chafer Prodontria lewisi (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae). New Zealand Journal of Ecology 2: 22-29.

Recommended citation

Thomas, A.C.W. 2013. Little owl. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Little owl

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
burrow, ground-level hollow, hole in building, rock crevice, tree hole
Nest description
A cavity or crack in a tree, old building, pile of hay bales, bank or rocks.
Nest height (min)
0 m
Maximum number of successful broods
Unknown
Clutch size (mean)
3
Clutch size (min)
2
Clutch size (max)
5
Mean egg dimensions (length)
34 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
29 mm
Egg colour
White
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
2 days days
Incubation behaviour
female only
Incubation length (mean)
28 days
Incubation length (min)
28 days
Incubation length (max)
31 days
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
33 days
Nestling period (min)
26 days
Nestling period (max)
35 days
Age at fledging (mean)
33 days
Age at fledging (min)
26 days
Age at fledging (max)
35 days
Age at independence (max)
30 days
Age at first breeding (min)
1 years
Maximum longevity
Unknown
Maximum dispersal
Unknown