The species responsible for starting the ancient literary link between owls and brains is now in decline across Europe and, conservationists say, needs some human help. In Britain, the little owl-which in Greek mythology was the constant companion of Athena, goddess of wisdom-has declined by 48% in the past 10 years, to some 3,500 pairs.

However, in Lincolnshire, two British Trust for Ornithology nest recorders, Bob Sheppard and Alan Ball, have designed a special nest box, which is proving to be to the liking of little owls. An entrance hole of 2¾in placed in the top corner of the box leads into a small tunnel, which opens out at the back of the box into a large, dark chamber and prevents chicks from straying before they can fly. The recorders advise placing bark chippings on the floor, as little owls don’t like bare boards, and placing the box in an open-fronted, isolated barn.

The little owl (Athene noctua), which was introduced to Britain by Victorian ornithologists, is often overshadowed by the graceful barn owl or the soft-calling tawny owl, but it has considerable charm of its own, even if its flattened head, bright yellow eyes and plump body make it look more cross
than wise. Comically, its small size (8½in long) means that it often falls over backwards when successful in tugging a large worm out of the earth.

For advice on nest boxes, visit www.bto.org.uk

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