Surviving even though ‘cursed’

Little owl.
Little owl.

As a child I can remember seeing dead little owls on gamekeepers’ gibbets. They were cursed as ‘Dutch Owls’ and ‘foreigners’ and every hand was against them, yet they survived.

“Hoo hoo hoo” the males used to shout in the twilight of a spring evening and then half a mile away you could hear the female yelping and screaming in reply.

It was all part of the countryside and we loved it, we children in the village.

The female’s call was much like that of the peacock I discovered later, when I heard my first peacock at Whipsnade Zoo.

That they were foreigners made them somehow special, exotic even.

We would find them very funny too. They sat upright on fence posts around the meadows and bob up and down like yoyos and stare at you with their big yellow eyes.

What we didn’t know was that they had been in this country just before Queen Victoria had been Queen.

It was the famous eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton in 1842 who brought cages filled with little owls all the way from Italy.

Out of those twelve adults, only five survived the journey.

These were let out on May 10 into his fields which were, he reported covered with snails, slugs, bettles and other choice food for the taking.

He knew very well that this very small owl, not much bigger than a song thrush, was extremely to gardeners.

“This diminutive rover of the night is much prized by the gardeners of Italy in destroying slugs, snails, insects, reptiles and mice.

There is scarcely an outhouse in that country that is not tenanted by the civetta”.

Although his owls did not take as breeding birds, many more did, especially those brought across Europe from Holland by Lord Lilford in 1889 and released at Oundle in Northamptonshire.

Others were released in Sussex, Hampshire and Norfolk and those did breed and multiply.

Today there seems to be about 100 pairs in the country with eight confirmed breeding.

They nest mainly in hollow trees especially willows.

This bird is the origin of the title ‘wise old owl’, vecause the Ancient Greeks saw it perching on statues, especially the goddess Athene, daughter of Zeus.

She was know to the Romans as Minerva.

Both names persist to this day because in Sweded the bird is known as Minervauggla, while its Latin name is Athene noctus.

Although nowadays photos of the bird often show it carrying a large moth to feed its young at the nest.

Gamekeepers of old knew it could also take birds and they feared for their partridge and pheasant chicks.

The population estimate for the UK is roughly 6,000 pairs, all as far north at the Cheviots.

Richard Williamson