Our raptor hospital is a busy place at this time of year - young owls and other birds of prey are finding their wings and, like all novices, some will find it harder to master new skills than others! Those that need a little extra help often turn up at the hospital, having fallen from a nest site or suffered a mishap through lack of confidence!
At the moment, six hospital places are being occupied by half-a-dozen Little Owls who came a cropper whilst testing their wings for the first time! The babies all arrived at the hospital as individual cases, but have soon made each others' acquaintance and when the time comes will be hacked out as a group.
Like some other owl species, Little Owl numbers are in rapid decline in the U.K. Results from the British Trust for Ornithology’s bird surveys indicate that numbers have fallen by 64% since the late 1960s and that current breeding pairs number 5,700.
One factor working against this vulnerable bird is it’s lack of formal conservation status in the U.K. It is excluded from the Birds of Conservation Concern list due to the non-native status of the Little Owl, the species having been introduced to Britain in the late 1800s. If it was eligible for inclusion, however, the Little Owl would be red listed, having declined in population by more than 50% over the last 25 years.
After many failed attempts to establish this owl in Britain, the first successful breeding was recorded in Kent in 1879 and by 1909 Little Owls were successfully established in habitat as far north as Derbyshire. Today, the largest populations are to be found in the South East of England and Suffolk seems to be a particular hot spot for this pretty little bird. This may in part be due to the fact that Suffolk is a rural area, with plenty of oak and ash (favoured by Little Owls) and a retention of old orchards - fruit trees are also a hit!
Notoriously difficult to spot, it is likely that there are many more Little Owls in your local area than you realise! Not only are they almost exclusively active at dawn and dusk, rather than during the day; they are also extremely well camouflaged at times when they are “visible”.
The six youngsters currently being cared for in our hospital are all “branchers”. This term is used to describe young owls which have fallen when they have “branched out” from their nest, as their flight feathers are developing, and they make their first attempts at flight. Such casualties are usually found members of the public walking their dogs - obviously this is a morning and evening activity, when the owls are at their most active.
Unlike Barn Owls, which will not feed young which have fallen from the nest, Tawny and Little Owls will continue to feed and care for their young branchers, so although such vulnerable looking chicks may appear to have been abandoned, their parents will probably know exactly where they are!
The best advice, therefore, on finding a baby Little Owl in such circumstances is to leave it alone, unless it is in imminent danger or is obviously injured. In the latter cases, then removal to a place of safety and care is necessary. To do this, pick the baby up gently in a towel or jumper, place it in a covered box and keep it in a quiet, dark place until you can transport it to your nearest rescue facility. You can find more details on our website here but please, WASH YOUR HANDS after handling a wild bird.
You will find a list of contacts for rescue centres on our website here. If you are located in Suffolk, please telephone the sanctuary for advice or hospital admissions on 0345 680 7897 (option 4).
These six branchers currently being cared for in our raptor hospital are now feeding independently and are of good body condition. This means that within the next couple of weeks, they will be transported to a secure, secluded hack site where they can enjoy regular supplies of food and protection until they choose to strike out on their own.