The Algarve region has a good selection of owls, from the tiny Scops Owl to the huge Eagle Owl; the well-known “Tu-whit, tu-who” of the Tawny Owl to the spine-chilling screech of the Barn Owl just to name a few. Owls are of course commonly associated with being nocturnal, however the Little Owl is commonly seen during daylight hours and is a common sight in the Algarve (and throughout Portugal) if you keep a look out. They are the most common owl in Portugal.
As its name suggests, the Little Owl is small in stature at just 22cm in length with a wingspan of 56cm. Weighing in at just 180 grams, the Little Owl is a plump-looking bird with a short tail. Both sexes are identical and impossible to determine without examination. Juveniles are also similar but appear to have slightly duller plumage and usually lack the white spots found on top of the head of an adult. The scientific name is Athene Noctua belonging to the “true owl” family of Strigidae. The Portuguese name is Mocho-galego.
Being small is one reason they are often missed but they also seem to camouflage with ease due to their spots and streaks in grey, brown and white, which enables them to blend into almost anything. Although active during daylight hours, they often sit motionless watching for prey and can easily be overlooked. Often you will spot them sitting on electricity cables which is one thing they cannot conceal themselves against. They have a comical expression due to their plump body, long legs and flattened facial disc giving them the appearance of frowning, which is in fact to aid their fantastic eyesight.
You often hear a Little Owl before you see one, they have a very distinctive high pitched “kiew kiew” sounding call which often gives away their location particularly at sunset and dusk when vocalisations increase during the springtime breeding season. They prefer open countryside and therefore are not usually found in urban locations, but there are exceptions to this. They can be very tolerant to human activity.
The Little Owl is very territorial and the male usually remains in his single territory for his entire life of around 16 years. Territorial calls are given to any intruder Little Owl before an aggressive fight, often claws first, occurs. Due to its comically sized feet in relation to its body, the Little Owl can catch small mammals such as mice, rats and even small rabbits, but the majority of its food comes from insects, amphibians and reptiles, although they can also prey on other small birds.
Nesting is diverse depending on the terrain and can include holes in trees, walls, cliffs, ruins and even disused rabbit holes. The female lays between three and five eggs and while she is incubating the male is usually perched close to the nest location, catching and supplying food for her. Hatching is usually after four weeks and the male continues to bring food while the female “plays mum” distributing it between the chicks. Like many owls, the fledglings leave the nest before they can fly after seven weeks and it takes at least a further week before they can fly. As you can imagine, it leaves them very vulnerable at this stage of their life.
Although a common owl, in my immediate area in the northern Algarve hills they are scarce and I will be constructing a Little Owl Box to hopefully attract them. A friend has provided the plans for a simple wooden box which I am happy to share should you wish to contact me.
By Craig Rogers
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Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography