I’ve been threatening to carry on writing about owls for a while, and now that I’ve arranged a place for them to sit, today is the day I do so. As I have said, the Lowveld supports ten different species of owl. We’ve dealt with one of them, in a bit of a hurry. Today, we deal with another three.
When most people think of owls, they tend to picture the sorts of birds that flapped around in the Harry Potter movies; large, powerful birds that would have no problem carrying obscure magical packages around. These are not those sorts of owls. These are small owls. Tiny owls.
They are so small that a shadowy, sinister group of birding anarchists is trying to rename some of them “Owlets”. Why are they doing this? Easy. It’s to “prevent confusion”. Ha! I was going to write about the Scops Owl, the White Faced Owl, and the Barred Owl. Now I’m writing about the African Scops-Owl, the Southern White Faced Scops-Owl and the African Barred Owlet.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may know that this renaming of birds and plants thing is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. But hobbyhorses are made for riding, so here we go again; as one of my loyal readers pointed out, an owlet is a baby owl. They might be small, but the Barred Owls I’m going to talk about are all growed up. As far as I’m aware, not a single birdwatcher has collapsed to the ground with a stroke while watching Barred Owls, clutching desperately at the legs of his companions and muttering “It’s too small! It’s too small! How can they call it an owl? It’s too small!”
The Scops Owl and the White Faced Owl look pretty similar. But not similar enough to cause major confusion. This situation has been remedied by calling them both “Scops-Owls”. The renamers obviously had a bunch of spare hyphens lying around. Last week a long-time birdwatcher fell to the ground with a stroke. Clutching desperately at the legs of his companions and muttering “Is it a Scops Owl or is it a Scops Owl? Scops Owl or Scops Owl? Scops? Scops?”
We need to find these people and put them in the stocks for a week. We can throw owls at them. Or Owlets. But I digress. On with the Owls. Or Owlets,
The Barred Owl. Or African Barred Owlet. If you are a bad person.
Not much to say, really. It’s an owl. A small one. So small is it, as a matter of fact, that some might even be inclined to call it an owlet. It’s a handsome little fellow, looking rather a lot like the Pearl Spotted Owl I wrote about last week.
Most of its diet is made up of invertebrates, but like most of the tiny Lowveld owls, it hasn’t forgotten its roots, and will occasionally take on birds bigger than itself, lizards, frogs, and snakes. And that’s about it. We can’t all be superstars. It does have a slightly spooky call, I suppose.
The Scops Owl. Or African Scops-Owl. If you have a thing for hyphens.
Now things get more interesting. I implied, when I wrote about Pearl Spotted Owls, that they were the Lowveld’s smallest. They aren’t. This guy is;
He weighs just 65g. He, too, eats mostly insects, with the odd bit of red meat thrown in to stop the other owls from laughing at him. But that’s not the really cool thing about him. Here’s another picture;
Vast swathes of the Lowveld are covered by almost single species stands of trees called the Mopane. The bark looks like this;
So does the Scops Owl;
You would think, then, that you would never see them. But it’s actually quite easy, if you are a callous, cold-hearted animal-teaser. This is the noise a Scops Owl makes.
It’s one of the characteristic sounds of the bush at night. Play it to anyone who has spent any time out there and their eyes will glaze over as they slip away to another time and place. Play it down in the bush, and you’ll see a Scops Owl.
You can actually do this with most owls. Set yourself up a deckchair, a beer, and a recording of an owl calling, and sit back and wait. You can even do this during the day. Soon, you will begin to hear an answer, and before long, the owl will make an appearance. If it’s a Scops Owl, he won’t even be looking like a stick any more.
He will be looking for a fight. Owls are fiercely territorial. All that tu-whitting and tu-whooing, or prrrping, in the Scops Owl’s case, is done to tell the neighbours to bugger off. Playing back the calls of a stranger in the middle of an owl’s territory is like setting up a picnic in a stranger’s garden; it’s going to provoke a reaction.
It is not, however, nice. When you step into nature, you should be doing it on nature’s terms. Challenging wild animals to an imaginary fight is all well and good, but it interrupts the pattern of their lives and is best avoided.
I shouldn’t be encouraging you, but you can do this with lions, too. I’ve seen it done. You do, however, need to decide beforehand whether you would like an angry 250kg murder-beast to come bursting out of the bush looking for a fight while you sit by in an open vehicle. It’s not an owl.
The White-Faced Owl. Or Southern White-Faced Scops-Owl. If you like lots of words.
As I mentioned, the White-Faced Owl looks quite a bit like a Scops Owl. It is substantially bigger, about 190g, and eats a lot more meat, in the form of rodents and birds. It also takes its fair share of insects.
As you saw from the pictures above, the Scops Owl is a bit of a shape-shifter. It can go from being a perfectly normal looking owl to being a dead Mopane branch with a slight ruffling of the feathers. But it can’t hold up a candle to this guy. This is a White Faced Owl;
So is this;
And so is this;
It has been called the transformer owl. The Scops Owl uses its transforming ability to hide away. The White Faced Owl does something a little different. It uses its remarkable ability to change its appearance to freak its enemies out. I’m going to show you a YouTube video. It is an absolutely perfect demonstration of how the White faced Owl defends itself through bluff and surprise.
It’s not a video I like. For a start, it has random people laughing up in one corner because Japan. It also has, for reasons which escape me, a dubstep soundtrack.
But most of all, like the owl-call playback trick, it’s not nice. Have a look;
What that owl is doing is called a defensive threat. It’s looking scary because it’s scared. It’s bluffing. And it’s scared for a reason. Random Japanese people keep pointing its most dreaded enemies at it. Big owls eat little owls. That clip up there looks like part of some sort of bird show. Somewhere up in Japan there is a White Faced Owl with ulcers and a drinking problem because, twice a day, every day, and three times on the weekend, a crowd of people gathers to laugh at it while its handlers threaten it with imminent death. Nice one.
And that, good people, is that. Four down and six to go. I have no idea when I’ll get round to the rest of the Lowveld owls, but when I do, I hope you’ll be there to see them.