The Owl of Athena

Night on a working farm is not quite completely quiet or completely dark. The surrounding fields are cloaked in darkness and the sky above is filled with stars. Across this nightscape we hear the ‘seep’ of calling redwing, returning for the winter. Tall buildings loom out of the black, their angular lines and features illuminated by a harsh white security light. A biomass energy generator whirrs and clanks noisily.

Within an open sided barn, trucks, tractors and machinery sit silent, lined up, waiting for daylight and to be in use again. Trucks with wheels taller than a person and massive buckets silently wait, casting shadows even darker than the surrounding night, in the white security light. The other half of the barn is filled to the rafters with bales of straw. A tower block filling the void.

Back in the summer we had been in this very same spot with soft evening light filling the barn, encompassing the machinery and making the straw stack glow golden. We had been searching for nesting birds and checking nest boxes. That day our every movement had been watched by two keen, vigilant eyes. Sitting in the rafters was a little owl. He never moved, just followed us with piercing yellow eyes. There had to be a nest nearby, and though we searched every where we could think, bravely plunging hands into dark holes within the bales, we had no luck in finding it.

It was only a short time later the foreman told us he had found it in one of the trucks!

Little owl on watch

Now 3 months later and in the dark of night we have returned to try and catch this watchful owl.

The brilliant white security light is not ideal. But we set the net across one side of the open barn, just inside so that the light is mostly blocked by the roof. We set it high, turn on the tape and retreat to the car to sit and wait.

Nothing happens. The night remains still, with just the clanking generator, the shadows, the stars and the redwing above us.

Perhaps time to try another spot.

We head round the maze of outbuildings from which occasional light spills in little squares. Round the corner and there are piles of logs. Not small logs but giant tree trunks piled up, ready for use. It is between one such pile and a long low single storey building that we decide to try again.

Again we set the net quite high, put the tape on and retreat. We wait. Still nothing.

We are just about to call it quits when there is a response. It is not just our tape calling across the dark yard. A little owl is calling back. We give it more time. From this angle it is hard to make out the net in front of us, with only the far pole standing out silhouetted against the dark sky. In the far distance a pair of headlights cuts through the darkness. A movement in the pole catches my eye. I am sure I see it sway in the dark. But then it is still and I am not sure if I really saw it move or if my imagination is playing tricks on me.

Its time to check the net and so once more we climb out of the car. This time there is no other response to the tape. Now it is our torch that cuts the darkness and there at the very end of the net near to that pole is a small dark bundle. Quickly we make our way over and it is with some glee that we take out a wonderful little owl.

It is a small bird about the length of a starling. Its head is broadly rounded with a flattened top, giving it a compact and almost plump appearance. Its back and head are boldly mottled brown and white, with more streaks on its underside. Its white chin and ‘eye brows’ give it a rather grumpy or frowning expression. Its iris is brilliant yellow, its pupil jet black. Its long legs are covered in soft white feathers right the way to its strong, curving talons.

The Owl of Athena

Little owls are not actually native to Britain, having been introduced in the 1800s. While many introduced species have gone on to be a conservation problem, little owls have in general fitted into our landscape without impacting any native species. It is likely that they filled a niche that was vacant. Like many of our owls, little owls are cavity nesting and their small size means they can take advantage of a whole range of habitats and nesting opportunities including trees, buildings, stone walls and even rabbit burrows.

It might have a grumpy expression but this little bird has celestial connections. It is closely associated with the Greek goddess Athena and the Roman goddess Minerva, thus representing wisdom and knowledge. Just look at its scientific name, Athene which commemorates Athena and noctura, the Latin name of an owl sacred to the goddess Minerva.

Sadly it appears that little owls are in decline, not only in the UK but across Europe. Studies are underway to try and understand why this much loved addition to our wild landscape is declining.

So for the second time in a matter of weeks, I find myself under a star filled sky holding a beautiful owl in my hand. Once more I switch off my head torch, giving the birds eyes time to readjust to night vision and then I watch as it silently lifts from my open hand and disappears off into the darkness of the farm. Bird-wise it doesn’t get much better than that.

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