NATURE NOTES - Owls and woodpeckers

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WE were out and about on our local patch this week and one of the birds we were looking for was the little owl – but unfortunately they weren’t showing in their usual site.

Little owls are the smallest British owl, about the same size as a mistle thrush. The upperparts and crown are brown and speckled with white; the underparts are whitish with brown streaks. The eyes are yellow, and the thick whitish eyebrows give it a fearsome look. Males and females are alike, though the female is usually a little larger than the male. Juveniles are similar but duller and do not have white speckles on the crown. They are an introduced species to the UK, but have been established for more than 100 years. Although there is new evidence to suggest that little owls were present in Britain between the last two ice ages, but only occasionally, right up to the latter part of the 19th century. Numerous unsuccessful introduction attempts were made in 1814, 1842 and the 1870s. Between 1889-90, large numbers of Dutch little owls were released in Northamptonshire with considerable success. Lord Lilford had attempted to introduce Little Owl for several years by buying them from the London bird market. He left them in open cages around Lilford Park (not the one in Leigh but the same Lord Lilford) making sure to leave food available every day. The first nest was found in 1889 and then they seemed to spread quite quickly. More introductions in Yorkshire, Hampshire and Hertfordshire were made, which were also successful. Little owls are not considered to be at threat, and there is a population of about 9,000 pairs in the UK.

Little owls are mostly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), but also can quite often be seen hunting during the day, especially when they have young to feed. They feed on a wide variety of prey - mostly small mammals, such as mice, voles, shrews, even small rabbits, (not a small feat for such a small bird) as well as insects, earthworms, snails, slugs and have even been known to take small fish.

Another bird we were searching for was much easier to find – great spotted woodpeckers – in fact a pair was getting in the mood just behind the cottage. It’s a tad too early for any drumming yet but it won’t be long if this mild weather keeps up. A few years ago one clever little divil found that one of our empty nest boxes acted like a ‘Ghetto Blaster’ and it had great fun for weeks blasting out its drumming for an hour at a time. Eventually the bird box just fell to pieces after such abuse!

Did you know that woodpeckers possess zygodactyl feet. Zygodactyl feet consist of four toes, the first and the fourth facing backward and the second and third facing forward. This foot arrangement is good for grasping the limbs and trunks of trees. Members of this family can walk vertically up a tree trunk, which is beneficial for activities such as foraging for food or nest excavation. In addition to the strong claws and feet, woodpeckers have short strong legs. This is typical of birds that regularly forage on trunks.