Wednesday, December 10, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Owl

The Little Owl – conservation, ecology and behaviour of Athene noctua.
Dries van Niewenhuyse, Jean-Claude GĂ©not and David H. Johnson.
Cambridge University Press. 2008. 574 pages. Hardback. £40.00
ISBN 978-0-521-88678-9

While many owls are difficult to study due to their relative scarcity and nocturnal habits, the Little Owl has become one of the best models for biological and conservation research. It is fairly common across much of Europe, and it occupies nest-boxes very easily, allowing researchers the chance to observe its nesting activities. This is the first book that I have seen to specifically focus on the species.

The authors synthesise information from 1,900 different sources and they discuss the Little Owl’s wide-ranging ecology, genetics and subspecies and population status by country. A lot of information has been incorporated from breeding atlases across Europe, and many maps have been included – although some have lost their impact by being in black and white.

A fact that many of us forget is that here in the UK the Little Owl did not arrive naturally. It was introduced into Kent and Northamptonshire, breeding for the first time in 1879. It has spread across much of England and Wales but has never advanced into Scotland or made the journey to Ireland.

The authors outline a strategy and monitoring programme for future conservation of the Little Owl. Although the UK population seems to be stable, the picture is not so rosy in some parts of Europe. Clear declines have occurred in Turkey and Spain and while a minimum of 560,000 pairs are thought to exist across the range, nest sites are often at risk from development.

Chapters cover every aspect of the Little Owl’s life, including history and traditions, taxonomy and genetics, morphology and body characteristics, distribution, habitat, diet, breeding, behaviour, population regulation and conservation. Perhaps most impressive, although of value really for the specialist, is an outstanding bibliography of literature on the Little Owl, listing publications dated from 1769 to the present day.

Books of this standard are often short of photographic content, but a clear attempt has been made here to lighten the book by the inclusion of 32 pages of colour images and in addition there are many black and white photos and line drawings.

Keith Betton