| Little owl|
Athene is a genus of small owls of the family Strigidae, and consists of four living species. They are mostly active at night, hunting and eating primarily insects. Their primary habitats are steppes and grasslands to semi-deserts and deserts. The only species found in the New World is the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) which, according to morphology and behavior, is the most specialized of the four species.
All birds of this genus bear a round, somewhat flattened head and no ear tufts. Coloration is generally brown and white; upperparts are brown and bear numerous white spots, while chest and belly are a lighter color and bear brownish streaks. Wing primary and secondary feathers are brown, banded with white, as are the tail feathers. Eyes are yellow, with a brown facial disk crossed above with white "eyebrows". The different species inhabit all continents with the exception of Australia, Antarctica and sub-Saharan Africa.
To date there is no complete consensus as to the proper placement of these owls, or just how many species belong to this genus. Current consensus lists these four as the primary species for Athene:
- Burrowing owl, Athene cunicularia
- Cretan owl, Athene cretensis (extinct)
- Little owl, Athene noctua
- Spotted owlet, Athene brama
The forest owlet, Heteroglaux blewitti is - with some justification - classified under Athene as the fifth species rather than the unique genus Heteroglaux, due in part to similarities with both A. noctua and A. brama.
König & Weick list two additional species: A. lilith and A. spilogastra; both are currently classified as subspecies of A. noctua. A. cunicularia was previously placed as a single species in Speotyto, but DNA studies resulted in a change to Athene. The white-browed hawk-owl (Ninox superciliaris) is classified within the genus Ninox, but recent, yet inconclusive, DNA studies show that it is close to Athene and has been recommended to be placed there.
The species A. noctua figures prominently in Greek mythology as the companion of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the patron of Athens, which justified the establishment of the genus Athene in remembrance. Owls were often depicted on coins such as tetradrachmas, with the coins sometimes being informally referred to then as now as "owls". These birds were important for the Athenians, who passed laws protecting the birds and encouraged flocks to live on the Acropolis. Owls seen flying over troops in battle were seen as a sign of victory, as during the victory of Agathocles over Carthage or during the battle of Salamis.
- Claus König, and Friedhelm Weick. Owls of the World. Christopher Helm, London (2008)