57. More owls.

I’ve never seen a Bushpig. I have loved wildlife for as long as I can remember, and wherever I go, I keep an eye open for things that creep and crawl and growl and bustle about in the undergrowth. I’ve seen quite a lot over the years, and in terms of mammals, I can page through a South African mammal guide and tick off most of the list, not counting rats and mice and bats, because life is too short.

A Bushpig. I think. It might be a Pangolin.

A Bushpig. I think. It might be a Pangolin.

There are a couple of ticks missing. I’ve never seen a Serval, or a Pangolin. But that’s OK. Hardly anyone has. They’re pretty rare. But I’ve never seen that Bushpig, either.  And they are not rare at all. Better yet, they tend to cling on in areas where most other big mammals have been wiped out. They are pests for farmers, and lurk around in thickets along hiking trails and wilderness areas.

They just don’t want me to see them. Which is hurtful and unkind. But I’ve learned to cope. We live in an age when real men are allowed to cry. And today I realised that the owls have been doing it to me too.



I’m not a birdwatcher. I’ve learned to identify quite a few of them over the years, and know a bit about them, but I’ve never set out to find them. They’re just there.

Owls are different though. Owls are cool. I would happily go out looking for owls. Yep, it’s time for yet another post on the owls of the Lowveld. There’s a seemingly endless supply of the buggers. And today was going to be a bit tricky, because two of the three were rare. Hard to find. Little known. Seldom seen. Or so I thought.

They really are cool. I defy you to tell me this doesn't somehow just seem right.

They really are cool. I defy you to tell me this doesn’t somehow just seem right.

The Marsh Owl.

The name says it all. These rare, seldom seen birds lurk about in deep, dank, inaccessible areas, hiding out in deep, rank beds of tall reeds, almost unknown to science due to the impenetrable and moist nature of their chosen habitat. Or.

Or, as I learned today, they are one of the most commonly seen owls in the Lowveld. The way the guide books speak about them, it’s a surprise that there isn’t a mandatory speed-limit of 10km/h in Lowveld driveways to stop them getting caught in car radiators.

A Marsh Owl. I think. It might be a Pangolin

A Marsh Owl. I think. It might be a Pangolin

They are fairly common, for a start. But it’s more than that. A marsh, certainly in South Africa, is usually just an area of open grassland that happens to be quite moist. And Marsh owls are not perfectly named. It seems to be the open grass, rather than the moist, that they’re after. You can find them in fairly dry areas. If you happen not to be me.

They aren’t small, about 36cm tall, and in the grassland have nowhere to hide. And it gets better. They spend much more time flying around and hunting during the day than most other owls. But wait. As in any good infomercial, there’s more. They are less territorial than other owls, but when they are breeding, they launch into spectacular display flights, with wing clapping and deep croaks. In broad daylight.

But wait. Sigh. There is, as always, more. When they’re not breeding, they roost together. In groups up to 75 strong. In the open grassland. On prominent perches. In the daytime.

Like this. Only with no hands.

Like this. Only with no hands.

And I’ve never seen one. Neither hide nor hair of one. This is quite an achievement, even if I say so myself. This is like going to a Grateful Dead concern and not being able to find any high people. Like going to an online gaming convention and not being able to find a virgin. I’d hardly even heard of them.

Maybe next time. They are actually fairly interesting owls. I kept talking about how open grassland is. It is, for us. But if you go and throw a fieldmouse into a field of knee-high grass and then try to find it, you will find that in a lot of ways it isn’t. Rats and mice are actually much easier to find in forests.

This woman, for example, is holding seven large rats.

This woman, for example, is holding seven large rats.

It also just so happens that grassland supports more rats and mice that almost any other habitat. There is a rich resource to be exploited, but it’s hard to exploit it. The Marsh Owl manages to do so. All owls rely on their hearing to hunt, but the Marsh owl does so more than most. It’s the only way to find their prey. It’s not a hugely successful way. About 80% of their hunts fail.

The Wood Owl.

And then there’s the Wood Owl. I’ve never seen him, either. But that’s OK. Neither has anyone else. Wood Owls hang out in deep, forested areas of the Lowveld along the rivers. They are strictly nocturnal. And they are uncommon.

Wood Owls. I think. They might be Pangolins.

Wood Owls. I think. They might be Pangolins.

They live on insects and birds, with the odd snake or Bushbaby thrown in. And that’s about it. Seldom seen equates with little known.

But they do have one thing that stands out. Their call. They say “Who”. A lot. And they are fiercely territorial.

The Barn Owl.

We call them Barn Owls. You might have a different name for them. Take a look and pick out the one you recognise;

White Owl, Silver Owl, Golden Owl, Demon Owl, Ghost Owl, Death Owl, Night Owl, Rat Owl, Church Owl, Cave Owl, Stone Owl, Monkey-faced Owl, Hissing Owl, Hobgoblin Owl, Hobby Owl, Dobby Owl, White-breasted Owl, Golden Owl, Scritch Owl, Screech Owl, Straw Owl, Barnyard Owl, and Delicate Owl.

One of the above.

One of the above.

There’s a reason for all these names. Barn Owls are one of the most widely distributed birds on the planet. You find them everywhere. They are missing from a few islands, the polar circles, and some of the deserts. And in some of the places you don’t find them, you find very close cousins.

One of the reasons for their international success is that they are very good at what they do. And what they do is eat rodents. They eat other things, too, birds and insects, but nothing that flies is better equipped to deal with rats and mice.

By "dealing with", I mean this.

By “dealing with”, I mean this.

That pale, heart shaped facial disk is actually an extension of their ears. And their ears are phenomenal. They are asymmetrically placed on the skull, to aid the owl in pinpointing the source of a sound. And they are very, very good at pinpointing the source of a sound. A Barn Owl can catch a mouse in a completely darkened room by sound alone.

But that, as you are no doubt growing accustomed to hearing, is not all. Rodents have plagues. Under the right circumstances, local populations of mice and rats explode. I’ve been down to the bush during a mouse plague where they used to run over us while we were sleeping, and every piece of exposed food, and even electrical wiring, had tooth-marks in it.

I knew owl-proofing the kitchen was a mistake!

I knew owl-proofing the kitchen was a mistake!

The Barn Owls are ready. They can have broods of up to ten owlets in a year, and during a plague, there can be a nest every 50 metres or so. A rodent plague leads to a Barn Owl plague. And a Barn Owl plague can be very cute indeed.

Some birds, when laying their eggs, wait until all have been laid before starting to incubate them, so that all of the nestlings are born at once. Barn Owls take the other route, and start incubating the moment the first egg is laid. This means that a brood of baby Barn Owls can range in size from nearly fledged to newly hatched. I’ve been lucky enough to see a family of Barn Owls taking a bit of air on a branch next to their nest, lined up like an unpacked set of Russian babushka dolls, all geeky and awkward looking in slightly different ways.

At last little Timmy was accepted into the cool crowd.

At last little Timmy was accepted into the cool crowd.

If you look at that list of names up there, you will see that some people can find Barn Owls a little creepy. Over and above the “flying silently through the night” thing, there are a couple of different reasons for this.

Firstly, while there is a bit of variation in colouring, most Barn Owls are pale and ghostly looking. Then there’s the call. They are pretty vocal, but the usual call, given as they hunt on the wing, is an unearthly shriek.

Then there’s this.

All that adds up to the Barn Owl probably being the source of the superstitious dread with which owls are treated.

That’s it for now. Nearly done. Just one more owl post to go. But they are the cool ones. The big guys. Hope to see you there.

43 thoughts on “57. More owls.

  1. I am shocked that you have barn owls. We have them here in my crofting township, though I only see them about once a year.
    Does that mean we can have giraffes too? That would be nice.

  2. I haven’t actually seen a live pangolin, but I’m very sorry to say, I’ve eaten a dead one in a restaurant, in Africa, before I knew it was endangered. 😦 I think pangolins and their armadillo cousins are fantastic, sort of prehistoric! Hmm, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a live armadillo, come to think of it! Have you ever seen one that wasn’t roadkill? 🙂

  3. kjoimp says:

    What a fabulous post! Thank you! I have an owl in some fiction I’m writing, which makes this even more wonderful to read. 🙂

  4. Nylabluesmum says:

    Love your Owls there!!! We have Barn owls here & Great Horned Owls & many others…I have seen maybe 6 owls in entire life so far!!!!
    I LOVED the photo of the Owl with shades…..seriously COOL!!!
    Now what the heck is a Pangolin???

  5. Donald bobbitt says:

    Great Post! I love the photos and your commentary.

  6. narf77 says:

    When you say that there are a “Couple of ticks missing” no doubt they are clinging tenaciously to those evasive and most elusive bush pigs Mr 23Thorns. I, myself, a non-native Tasmanian, have seen a wild pig. Sorry Mr 23Thorns, they are feral here in Tasmania and plentiful and my fine specimen was standing on top of a large mound rootling (as you would if you were a fine specimen of wild pig…) in plain sight in the middle of the day. I am quite sure it was a pangolin to be honest but as I am not a native Tasmanian, I can’t really be sure. Love the pigs, love the owls, love that the owls got humans to carry them around (hypnotic owls?) and can’t wait to read about those HUGE owls that are fully capable of complex physics, chemistry and math and who are prone to emerging at night time…err…sorry there Mr23 Thorns, I think I am thinking about those virginal gamers…forgive me…it’s early…by the way, I just had to share this link with you Mr23 Thorns. Remember the “Sky Whale?” That magnificent bosomed fantastically inflated creature of the sky? Well it came to Launceston! I have walked the streets below that Whales immediate trajectory and not to be outdone by any other city, we allowed one of our numpty council aldermen to have their say about the Sky Whale and have it she did. She decided to denigrate the sky whale, said it was sexist, said we needed a sky shark laden with penises to balance out the equation and then went on to insult our fat childless state premier (I must admit, the resemblance between our state premier and the sky whale is incredible!) in the same breath. A storm in a sky whale Mr 23Thorns and you shared it here first. Who would have thought that your harmless lightweight little conversation piece would end up a massive bunfight in the hallowed halls of Launceston City Council. It is a small world Mr 23Thorns…a VERY small world.


    Forgive my late comment…I became suddenly aware that July 1st or “D” Day as it has so rightly been called, heralded the end of Google Reader as we know it (and as anyone else knows it) and even though I thought that I had it sorted and had moved to places less extinct, I hadn’t. Seems my new RSS Feed Reader had decided to go belly up with it’s bestie. I had to hurriedly buggerise around and find myself something less extinct A.S.A.P. and it has been a bit of a struggle getting all of my 465 feeds crammed into it and something had to give…my comments “gave”. Consider me back in pog form (like ALF).

    • 23thorns says:

      I am sick with envy. No-one ever fills the sky with boobs round here. We don’t get much news about Australian politics round here, but from what, your guys know how to have fun. Robust is a word that springs to mind.
      As for the pigs, these guys are locals. Feral pigs taste a little too much like bacon to make it out here.

      • narf77 says:

        What do your native pigs taste like? Let me guess… Pangolin? 😉

      • 23thorns says:

        warthog is delicious. But ugly.

      • narf77 says:

        The best kinds of food are ugly Mr 23Thorns. That’s what keeps the fashionistas away and the price down. Look at what happened to lamb shanks, polenta and slow cooked dried beans when the fashionistas decided that they were de riguer…sad but true. Keep those hogs nasty Mr 23Thorns and there will be crackling for years to come.

    • albertine says:

      Wow. Rich like nougat. What a lot to digest, narff77.

  7. albertine says:

    great post – I found myself wanting to respond to separate bits of it – so in that sense (and in that sense only) I wanted the post to be shorter. eg that person holding all the rats and mice – I love the way she is trying to be as cool as an owl by wearing shades.
    Then, later on, I call that kind of owl a barn owl – and aren’t its feather just the most beautiful ever? And isn’t it miraculous that beauty can be commonplace?
    Now i must rush off and paint a canal boat. Well – bits of it. That’s too big for me, too, so like your post, I will address it piece by piece.
    PS when I am in less of a hurry I really will buy you a beer. (1 beer x no of views= a living. I hear you!)

    • 23thorns says:

      I, too, would love to rush off and paint a canal boat. But there are no canals here. sigh.

      • albertine says:

        Next time you are over this way, you can help me paint mine. I have a friend who gets pallets for free (a perk of his job) and he thinks that they can be burned in the boat’s stove. Would you agree? I’m a little worried about the resin clogging it up.

      • 23thorns says:

        i did read somewhere that you never know what has been carried on them, and they might have been treated with some interesting chemicals to stop them from rotting. It might be worth checking first.

  8. Entertaining and informative as always!

  9. Great post – and yet more facts learned about my favourite bird 🙂

  10. Lyn says:

    I’d shriek too, if I’d been locked in a box not much bigger than me. Let’s hear it for the owls!

  11. soonie2 says:

    I love owls! I often hear them at night in my yard but have yet to actually see one. Thanks for this awesome post!

  12. AliasPhish says:

    Another fantastic owl (or is it a pangolin?) post!

  13. billyriel1971 says:

    Thanks for the like on a post about the new documentary, Losing the West (2013).

    You have a very interesting site here….with some great photos. 🙂


  14. Jocelyn Hers says:

    Such beautiful birds.

  15. ioniamartin says:

    Informative and entertaining. Love the owls!

  16. Susan M says:

    Another great post! I love the owls. And that’s great information about the nesting — I didn’t know that some birds started incubating only when all the eggs were laid. Thank you!

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