MAR 13, 2019 10:50 AM PDT

Could Germany's Little Owl Scatter to Northern Switzerland in the Future?

Germany is home to a small species of nocturnal owl called the ‘little owl’ (Athene noctua), and while the German Red List recognizes the little owl as an endangered species, recent population stabilizations have earned it the status of ‘least concern’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species.

A 'little owl' in its natural habitat.

Image Credit: Ralph Martin

Given what appears to be a successful conservation story at first glance, researchers now ponder about how the little owl will disperse into surrounding regions as populations continue to multiply and outgrow their present boundaries. Northern Switzerland, for example, borders Germany to its South and sports suitable (or at least semi-suitable) habitat conditions for the little owl.

The little owl once called Switzerland its home; however, factors such as farming and habitat loss have fundamentally driven the creature out and into the neighboring country of Germany. The idea that little owl populations might one day grow large enough to re-colonize Northern Switzerland has been tossed around for ages, but no one took it seriously; at least, not until now.

In an effort to learn more about the little owl’s most practical move, an international team of researchers has purportedly devised a computer model that can help them predict how populations will move as their numbers continue to rise. Their findings are now published in the journal Ecological Applications.

"It is difficult to predict how animals will disperse," said study lead author Severin Hauenstein from the University of Freiburg; but that hasn’t stopped him and his colleagues from trying.

Related: Even as it gets older, a barn owl's hearing doesn't worsen

The team’s computer model tapped into the radio telemetry data, otherwise known as wireless animal trackers, of juvenile little owls to discern movement patterns and predict where they’d go next based on that. Captivatingly, the computer model helped them identify key trends, such as:

  • Female juvenile little owls were more likely to fly directionally and for longer distances while dispersing than males
  • Male juvenile little owls stayed at suitable habitats longer than females and didn’t fly as long of intervals at a time

Based on the findings, it doesn’t seem likely that the male juvenile little owls would want much to do with Switzerland’s developed lands, but that females might be more open to the idea. Moreover, while the re-colonization of Switzerland might be feasible, that’s not to say that it’d be an easy adaptation.

"Fragmented urban areas in particular, such as those around the tri-border area near Basel, appear to limit the movement of juvenile little owls drastically," Hauenstein elucidated. "Besides that, little owls avoid forested areas because that is where their natural enemy, the tawny owl, can be found; they also avoid higher altitudes such as the Swiss Jura, the Black Forest, and the Swabian Alb."

All in all, the researchers suggest that it’d be possible for the little owl to re-colonize certain parts of Northern Switzerland should the need arise, but that it would happen more quickly if conservationists made an effort to make the region’s habitat just a bit more little owl-friendly. For example, little owls hate urban and heavily-forested areas, but something more in the middle would be ideal.

Assuming conservationists can make this work, the little owl may obtain new habitat range and its population may continue to thrive. Then again, only time will tell.

Source: EurekAlert, Ecological Applications, IUCN

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
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