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Little Owl
Athene noctua

Last edited: October 2nd 2019

Little Owl

Little Owl - Athene noctua

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Short description of Athene noctua, Little Owl

This owl is little more than half the height of the familiar tawny owl. The upperparts are brown, spotted with white, and the breast is whitish with heavy brown streaking. Low white brows and staring yellow eyes create a characteristically fierce expression. Flight is fast and deeply undulating.

Impact summary: Athene noctua, Little Owl

The long-established nature and relative stability of the population means that its impacts on native wildlife can no longer be determined. Most observers believe that these impacts were negligible.

Habitat summary: Athene noctua, Little Owl

The little owl is essentially a bird of farmland, where it reaches highest density in lowland areas with many old trees. Tree holes provide most nest sites but the species can nest also in deserted buildings and in rabbit holes.

Overview table

Environment Terrestrial
Species status Non-Native
Native range Europe, Asia-Temperate, Northern Africa, Northeast Tropical Africa
Functional type Predator
Status in England Non-Native
Status in Scotland Non-Native
Status in Wales Non-Native
Location of first record Walton Hall, Yorkshire
Date of first record 1842


The species is native very widely across the Palaearctic, north to Denmark, Latvia and Mongolia and south to the Sahara Desert, Ethiopia and Yunnan. Related species replace it in the Americas and in the Oriental region.

First Record

The first releases of little owls are thought to have been in Yorkshire in 1842 but later releases from 1874 in Kent and 1888 in Northamptonshire were the first to establish viable populations.

Pathway and Method

The species was deliberately introduced to GB, probably for reasons of pest control. There was rapid natural spread from several of the sites of introduction. The birds successfully introduced to Northamptonshire were brought from the Netherlands.

Species Status

The species is thought to have a stable population globally and is of least conservation concern. Apart from GB, the only other known non-native population is in South Island, New Zealand.

Dispersal Mechanisms

Little owl is not a migratory species and, for a bird, has slow dispersal and a great reluctance to cross open water. Birds released in Northamptonshire during 1888-90 are believed to have spread to Rutland by 1891 and Bedfordshire by 1892.


Little owls are strongly territorial, hole-nesting birds. Nests are normally in trees but can also be in disused buildings or underground, for example in rabbit burrows.

Known Predators/Herbivores

Resistant Stages

Habitat Occupied in GB

Environmental Impact

In New Zealand, little owls are a major predator of the endangered Cromwell chafer beetle Prodontria lewisi, and may limit its population. Its largely non-overlapping distribution there with the small native owl Ninox novaeseelandiae suggests there may be competitive exclusion, though this may be driven more by habitat preferences than direct interactions. There are no birds of similar ecology in GB and little owl is not a significant predator of other birds. Interactions with native invertebrates are likely, however, but unknown.

Health and Social Impact

None known.

Economic Impact

None known.


Biology, ecology, spread, vectors

Management and impact

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


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Map of the UK with areas shaded to show the UK distribution

Distribution map

View the Distribution map for Little Owl, Athene noctua from NBN Atlas