Michael McCarthy: The sad decline of a little goddess

Nature Notebook: Unlike similar introductions, the little owl has been an attractive addition to Britain's avifauna

Tuesday 26 January 2010 01:00

Here's some sad news for birdwatchers and classicists alike: the wise old owl is in decline. Across Europe, the bird which began the association between owls and intelligence is dropping in numbers – the little owl, which in Greek mythology was the constant attendant of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Why such a titchy bird (it's not much bigger than a starling) should be linked to a great goddess, rather than an eagle, say, is something we will never know, but perhaps little owls bred on the Acropolis in Athens where Athena's temple, the Parthenon, was situated. The bird also became the symbol of the city, and its bug-eyed image was such a feature of Athenian silver coins – the reliable dollars of the ancient world – that they were known as "owls". They are avidly collected today.

You can see little owls in Britain, but they've only been here for about 120 years; they're not a native species. They were introduced by Victorian gentleman-ornithologists of a classical bent, in particular by Edmund Meade-Waldo of Stonewall Park near Chiddingstone in Kent, who released birds onto his estate from 1874 (the first one bred in 1879), and by Lord Lilford, the president of the British Ornithologists' Union, who made releases of Dutch birds at his Lilford Park estate near Oundle in Northamptonshire the following decade.

Unlike similar introductions which proved to be ecological disasters, such as the grey squirrel and the muntjac deer, the little owl has been an attractive addition to Britain's avifauna, perhaps because it's not in direct competition with anything else and manages to fill a niche in the ecosystem: it's an owl which eats earthworms (as well as anything else it can get).

Now is a good time to spot them (often sitting on a fence post) because they are active during the day and have to hunt for longer in the hard weather.

No one knows why they are declining – it may be the spread of intensive farming – but they are dropping in numbers right across Europe, from Spain to Turkey, and in Britain they have declined by 18 per cent since 1995. Perhaps we should ask Athena for her help, and make her a propitiatory sacrifice.

Too clever for its own good

There is one feature of little owl behaviour which I would pay a king's ransom to see. I quote from the British Trust for Ornithology's account of the species: "[It] feeds on earthworms, [and] is occasionally observed to fall over backwards when unexpectedly successful in trying to extract large individuals from the ground." It is somehow a curious comfort to know that the wisest bird in the world, the goddess's companion, can at times appear as ridiculous as the rest of us.

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