Owls - of The African Night
With their haunting calls and silent flight, owls are among the most elusive and misunderstood of all birds. Legends and fables from across the world describe the owl as a supernatural being, often associated with death, while in other cultures, the owl is revered as being "wise". Perhaps their forward-facing eyes - just like those of a human - are partly responsible for the attention they have received from people through the ages.
Africa supports a large number of owl species - between 30 and 40, with new species of forest-dwelling Scops Owls still being described - and some of them are among the most interesting birds on the continent. All serious bird-watchers yearn to catch a glimpse of a Pel's Fishing Owl, while the Congo Bay Owl, may be one of the world's rarest species. The evocative frog-like call of the common Scops Owl is as characteristic of the savannah night as the whoop of a hyena.
Adapted for the Night
Owls differ from other birds in having soft, frayed edges to their flight feathers which allows them to fly in silence and capture prey undetected. All have acute hearing and enormous eyes, which provide excellent vision in low light. Most owls are also extremely well-camouflaged so that they can remain undetected when roosting quietly during the day.
All owls lay their eggs in cavities, on the ground or in a nest built by another bird, as it is obviously impossible for a nocturnal bird to gather nesting material of any kind. All owls lay pure white eggs and these are seldom left unattended - the incubating adult always sits tight, sometimes even to the point of allowing itself to be picked up by a human researcher. Some owls can be very aggressive, however, and a European Tawny Owl was responsible for the removal of renowned bird photographer Eric Hosking's eye several years ago! Spotted Eagle Owls can likewise be very defensive over their young and will not hesitate to dive-bomb and strike an unwary bird-watcher.
In this short feature, we take a look at just four of the species that make the African night so wondrous . . .
The Cosmopolitan Barn Owl
The Barn Owl is one of the most widespread birds in the world, with populations on all continents and on many remote oceanic islands. It is able to breed prolificly in years when its rodent prey is abundant (often following above average rainfall) with a record clutch of 19 eggs having been recorded; these owls frequently occupy the nest of the Hamerkop, much to the annoyance and agitation of the hard-working builders! (two such nests are under observation by CCAfrica guides at Ngala Game Lodge in South Africa and Matetsi Water Lodge in Zimbabwe). The eerie screech of this ghostly-white owl is certainly a sound to send a shiver down the spine of the uninitiated, but it is a harmless - and in fact very useful - bird, as far as people are concerned, for it helps to control the numbers of rats and mice.
Something of a Cannibal
The largest African Owl is the aptly-named Giant Eagle Owl, or Verreaux's Eagle Owl, as it is known in East Africa. Even more remarkably - on a pair of adult Wahlberg's Eagle in Londolozi Private Game Reserve (South Africa) near the Kruger National Park. In addition to such large prey items, Giant Eagle Owl are also on record as having killed and fed upon Spotted Eagle Owl, Barn Owl and White-faced Owl, so other nocturnal hunters need to be on their toes at all times! Interestingly, the spiny hedgehog is one of the more frequent prey items of the Giant Eagle Owl, with Guineafowl and hares also being high on the list.
The minute African Scops Owl (17cm) is a common, sometimes abundant, resident of savannah woodland where its repetitive but charming "prrrup" call punctuates the night. The call seems to be projected away from the bird, which makes it hard to locate, even with a torch or spotlamp. These little owls feed mostly on insects and spiders and breed in a tree cavity, with the highest densities being found in mopane and knobthorn savanna. At CCAfrica lodges, it is most common at Londolozi Private Game Reserve and Ngala Game Lodge in South Africa (a pair is known to roost in the camp itself) and Siana Springs in Kenya, where there is always a chance of seeing one on a night drive.
Ginger Phantom of the Waterways
Perhaps the most spectacular of African Owls is the Pel's Fishing Owl which is found only in secluded areas where tall evergreen trees fringe permanent water. With bare, scaly legs and toes for grasping slippery prey, this owl hunts by perching close to the water and waiting for a fish to come within striking distance; once it senses prey, it swoops into the water - sometimes submerging itself - and clasps the fish with its long talons. The Okavango Delta in Botswana provides ideal habitat for this magnificent bird and it is regularly (though not invariably, due to changing flood regimes) seen in the vicinity of Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge and Nxabega Okavango Safari Camp, where it has been known to convert the most ardent lion fans into enthusiastic birders! Individuals are also seen from time to time at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, and a pair frequents the Zambezi River fronting the Matesti Water Lodges in Zimbabwe.
For more information on Owls in Africa, two books are well worth obtaining: Owls and Owling in Southern Africa by Warwick Tarboton and Rudy Erasmus (Struik, 1998) and A Delight of Owls by Peter Steyn (David Philip, 1984).
Posted: Birds by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006