Girton village website - Nature

Girton Birdwatch - July 2006

Little Owl

Last month I mentioned that a Little Egret had been seen along the road from Girton to Histon. This bird was also encountered by several 'Girtonians', although originally brought to my attention by Dave Heath, who lives in Milton. In May, Dave, in the course of a short walk in the Kings Hedges Road area, also came across a Hobby and Peregrine falcon, so there are plenty of interesting birds around at present. Add to these the Osprey which flew low over Coldham's Common on 6th June, circling to gain height before disappearing over the east of the city, and the increasing number of reports of Red Kites (8th June over Stretham and Fowlmere, 11th Fen Drayton and 12th over Cottenham) and Buzzards (latest at Fen Drayton 10th June, together with 3 Hobbies) in the area, then there is much to reward those of us who walk around with our heads in the air! Perhaps I'm guilty - again - of assuming that everyone is familiar with the Little Egret. It's a medium-sized (about 24 inches long) member of the heron family, extremely common in southern Europe but, until recently, very rare in this country. Its long black legs and yellow feet are diagnostic. (White plumage of course!) Its expansion into northern Europe, and then Britain, is a modern success story. Before 1957 there had only been 23 records of Little Egret in Britain, and as late as 1990 this number only just exceeded 600. However, since then, there have been as many as 1000 birds on the British and Irish coasts at the same time and I can rely upon seeing a small flock of about 10 birds on Parkgate marshes, Wirral, whenever I visit my sister. This expansion has been attributed to global warming. The Little Egret, in the breeding season, sports elegant and beautiful lacy plumes on its crown, breast and mantle, which, in the past, were literally the death of it. These were in great demand for the millinery trade and, despite the fact that egret farms developed abroad where birds were plucked of their plumes four times a year without being killed, most of the demand was satisfied by the wholesale slaughter of the birds, with an estimated five to 200 million being killed annually to adorn women's hats. However, I hasten to add, it was the action of women themselves which helped to put an end to this carnage. In 1889, a group of pioneering female conservationists were responsible for forming, at Didsbury, Manchester, the Society for the Protection of Birds which, 15 years later, was granted a royal warrant to become the RSPB with which we are familiar today.

As you move around the village at dusk, or even during daylight, you might be lucky enough to find a Little Owl sitting on a post or perching on over-head cables. I saw several about two years ago while Dave Heath, again, passed one on his way into Girton in May. The Little Owl, indeed, could be adopted as a village mascot, especially since its survival as a British breeding bird owes much to another pioneering female conservationist and ex-Girton resident, Alice Hibbert-Ware, who is commemorated by the small nature garden to be found at the top of Church Lane. Alice Hibbert-Ware lived in Girton, at 'Hilary' on Cambridge Road, from 1931 to her death in 1944. She was very active in the community, not only organising the Girton Village School Field Club, but serving as a Parish Councillor and as a manager of both the Village School and Impington Village College (See the GPN, May 2000). While living in the village she was approached, prompted by her growing reputation as an ecologist, by the newly created British Trust for Ornithology to help with a proposed investigation into the life and habits of the Little Owl. The Little Owl is not a native species but was introduced from the Continent at the beginning of the 20th century and quickly became one of Britain's most controversial birds. Once introduced, it spread rapidly and as it spread it fell foul of ever greater numbers of gamekeepers. They accused the Little Owl of every crime in their calendar, until it seemed as if in their eyes the bird existed entirely on a diet of pheasant and partridge chicks. This small bird - it is only 8.5 inches long - is certainly a ferocious killer and capable of taking prey far bigger than itself: moorhen, young lapwing, wood pigeon, cuckoo and magpie, as well as mammals up to the size of rabbit or brown rat. It also stood 'accused' of storing up surplus carcasses in a larder, creating charnel houses which attracted unwanted beetles and other undesirables. It is true that prior to its introduction Little Owls had been widely kept as household pets in this country for their presumed prowess as cockroach killers.

It was against this near hysterical background that Alice Hibbert-Ware, after an extensive publicity campaign in the press and on BBC radio, was appointed in 1935 by the BTO as principal investigator into the Little Owl's diet. Over the next two years, assisted by 75 helpers in 34 counties, she assembled a mass of data, primarily derived from pains-taking dissection of 2460 Little Owl pellets (the indigestible fur and bones 'sicked up' by birds of prey), from just one of which she extracted the remains of 343 earwigs, and from another 2000 crane-fly ('daddy-long-legs') eggs. This forensic detail both demolished the myths of larders and beetle-luring charnel houses, and swept the ground from under the feet of those who stigmatised the Little Owl as a wholesale destroyer of game-bird chicks. Over the years the bird's black reputation has withered away, due in no small measure to the initial efforts of Alice Hibbert-Ware, and it is now a welcome addition to the fauna of these islands. So, remember Alice when next you rest in the shade under 'her' trees!

Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com