Country: Nature Notes

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The Independent Culture
AS DUSK comes down early these dark winter afternoons, little owls pipe up in the ash trees along the hedgerows. Unlike tawny owls, which hoot, these diminutive fellows give high-pitched, plaintive, whistling calls - kiew, kiew. Their other characteristic is their looping flight, like that of a woodpecker or jay: each time they glide, they sink down, before a short flurry of wing-beats takes them up again: an economical mode for a bird.

Little owls have an amusing appearance. Only about eight inches from head to tail, they sit upright on branches like small, rectangular blocks of wood, and, if they become alarmed, bow down and straighten up, bobbing in quick succession. Because their facial discs are flattened above the eyes, they look as though they are permanently frowning.

They are sometimes known as French owls, having been imported from the Continent during the 19th century. But their Latin name - Athene noctua (Athene of the night) - is misleading, since they are more active by day than many other owls; they often hunt in the twilight, living off insects, mice, rats and small birds. Next month they will start taking up mating territories and preparing to nest in hollow trees.

Duff Hart-Davis