The Little Owl Moment

A Little Owl Moment is when time stops for a second. The world floods with delight and hope. And memory grabs it.

Visitors at the Barn Owl Centre


In Gloucestershire, there is a small charity which advances the conservation of British owls and other raptors and rescues the wounded and ill-treated. It is called The Barn Owl Centre. I learned about it a few weeks ago. I am so glad it exists. Please help it, if you are too.

The owl is the bird of Athena, goddess of wisdom, inspiration and civilisation and fangirl of  the hero Achilles. No surprise, then, that owls appeal to writers – from an anonymous mediaeval minstrel, through Shakespeare and Robert Browning to T H White and J K Rowling.  And me.

Once I lived in a cottage at the bottom of a hill, surrounded by woods and fields. It was not a happy time. The present was out of control and the future scared me.

Then, one night I came home late. In the light of a wonky Victorian lamp post, I could see something sitting on the dry stone wall round the cottage. The thing was quite small, hunched and rather shapeless. Someone must have found  a child’s toy and left it there to be reclaimed, I thought. I went to open the gate –  and the shapeless thing rotated its head an impossible degree and opened its eyes at me.

from this

to this

Now Little Owls, for such it was, do eyes in a big way.  Pantechnicon headlights could take their correspondence course. Glaring at you from a distance of ten feet or so in the dark, they have quite an effect. I recoiled, stumbled and slid into the ditch that ran beside our garden wall. The Little Owl shuffled away along the wall about fifteen feet or so and carried on glaring. If ever an owl said, ‘Bugger off and let me get on with finding supper,’ that one did. Wet, muddy, and more than a bit whiffy (it was not one of your purling stream sort of ditches) I began to laugh.

I have seen them two or three times since, over the years. Every time it’s special. Totally absorbing, humbling, profoundly satisfying. What my friend Karin calls a levitating experience, in fact.  So ‘Little Owl Moments’ has become my personal shorthand for that sensation of time  standing still and everything being in harmony. Rare. Magic.

Last time I really saw one – well two, actually- it was late afternoon, and I had a newly broken wrist and an unfinished book that would have to go on hold for months as a result. But even so – the Little Owls, fossicking about, alert for prey, flexing those mechanical grab talons, and generally doing their thing, took me out of self-pity, cheered me up and generally made me feel that Something Good  Would Come of This.

They are beautiful, of course, with that brown and ivory plumage, as if apple blossom has been dumped over them and they aren’t too pleased about it.  But that expression is what I particularly cherish. Permanently disgruntled. My  Consultant Birdwatcher tells me that even proper ornithologists, sworn enemies of anthropomorphism, refer to it as ‘serious’.  (Little Owls  can also look interested, suspicious, busy and  quizzical, but don’t tell the Birdwatcher.)


Willow, the Little Owl BARN OWL CENTRE

As well as conservation and study, the Barn Owl Centre of Gloucestershire rescues injured and mistreated birds and releases those which can make it in the wild.  It hosts photography days, where a selected number of photographers can meet the permanent residents and its image gallery is just breathtaking.  It is staffed by volunteers who care for the birds (enduring sadness when some don’t have a happy ending, as well as the huge buzz when they fly off free or settle happily into their new home) and educate the visitors.

Visitor and barn owl concentrating. Adults are welcome too.

And now they’re trying to raise funds as well. Please show them their efforts are valued; protect the birds; donate online here .  And  give yourself a Little Owl moment.


Please note that all photographs in this post are the copyright of the Barn Owl Centre to whom I am indebted for permission to use them here. 

10 Responses to “The Little Owl Moment”

  • Thanks for this, Jenny. Ols are favourites of mine and Leo’s. Will pass it on.

    • They walked through my childhood reading — Owl in Pooh, of course, and the wondrous Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone. Come to think of it, I shall reward myself for completing current workload by reading the T H White again.

  • Melanie Hilton:

    Little Owls are my favourites too – thanks for the great pictures and the nudge to go an make a donation! Have done.

    • I gather that classicists argue about Athena’s eyes — generally translated as grey but it might possibly mean intense and brilliant. Like our friend the Little Owl’s, in fact. A goddess with eyes like that would be pretty hard to say no to.

      I guess, with your history, you already know that its Latin name is Athene noctua?

  • Barn owls are definitely my favourite. I fell in love with one called Marmite at the Andover Hawk and Owl Conservancy, many years ago. Having a (semi-wild) barn owl sitting on your fist is such a privilege and I’ve never forgotten it. Sadly, the barn owl doesn’t get Athene in its name. It’s merely tyto alba. But it’s still absolutely gorgeous. I just wish my garden had the right kind of habitat for them. We have tawnies around here — I love listening to their calls in the wee small hours — but no screeching barn owls, sadly.

    Thanks for the reminder that they need protecting. Have donated.

  • Barn owls are utterly beautiful, I agree. I think it’s just chance that I’ve encountered the Little Owl at more critical moments in my life.

    I envy you the close encounter. The Barn Owl Centre has visiting days. I must organise myself.

    Thank you for donating, too.

  • I did enjoy this post, Jenny. When I lived in a cottage in Wharfedale, there was a barn with an owl-stone – a hole shaped like a key hole under the point of the roof, just the right size for a barn owl. I often used to see it at dusk, gliding silently like a snowflake towards a small wood. A wonderful sight.

  • Ah yes, I can just see it. Such graceful,elegant creatures.

  • Lovely post – really enjoyed your description of your first owl moment. I was thrilled to see my first Little Owls, after much looking, on a trip to Ramsay Island off St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire. Shared my experience with country-living friends who looked unimpressed at my townie enthusiasm. They had one which perched on their house gable every night and kept them awake.

    • I admit they do yelp, rather. But you’d have thought experienced country types would have learned to sleep through that.

      Maybe there are advantages to being a townie, after all. We can still be awestruck.

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