61. Owls. Again. For the last time. I promise.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that I occasionally write about the ecosystem of the Lowveld. These last few weeks, I’ve been writing about owls. Lots of them. I like owls. But I must confess to being just about over writing about owls.

My dreams have become a little peculiar

My dreams have become a little peculiar

I’m sure you all feel the same. But come with me one last time and we’ll be done. These are the big ones.

The Spotted Eagle owl.

And having just told you that, the first owl actually isn’t all that big, only about 700g or so. But I have a soft spot for spotted eagle owls, because there is a pair of them that visits our home every now and then. We will be sitting outside as the sun goes down, and hear a quiet hoot or two. We know where their favourite roosts are, so all we have to do is stand up and there they will be. And they look pretty big in the suburbs.

I, too, am big in the suburbs.

I, too, am big in the suburbs.

Surprisingly, for a fairly big owl, they, like many of the owls I’ve written about, live mostly on insects. They also eat a fair number of rodents and birds. And they eat something else, too. They eat carrion. This is just super down in the Lowveld, where everything obligingly kills everything else, and leaves the scraps lying around.

It’s not quite so super everywhere else. Where man has moved in and removed most of the ecosystem, the major source of carrion is roadkill. Lurking about on busy roads at night is not a very sensible thing for a large bird to do. They, too, become roadkill. Often. So much so that on my most recent trip up to the bush, I saw a road sign warning not of deer crossing, but of owls.

Like this, but with an owl on it.

Like this, but with an owl on it.

If this doesn’t make you feel sad enough, I can throw something else. Spotted Eagle Owls mate for life. They get married. Those calls I was talking about earlier are as much to serenade their spouses as they are to advertise their territory. And they form part of a duet. Which means that for every owl driven over by a careless or unknowing driver, somewhere out there is a sad and lonely “Too-wit” without a “too-woo”.

Depressed? Sorry. Let’s move along.

The Pel’s Fishing Owl.

And now, at last, we get to the big buggers. The Pel’s Fishing Owl is properly big. It weighs about two kilograms, which is massive for a flying bird. You would think that this would let it stand out in a crowd. No. This is a sneaky, sneaky owl.

This one is letting the entire species down by being bad at sneaking.

This one is letting the entire species down by being bad at sneaking.

So sneaky is it that for years no-one knew it occurred in the Lowveld at all. But they are there, lurking along the perennial rivers. There are not a lot of them, but even those that are there are hardly ever seen. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, there aren’t a hell of a lot of perennial rivers in the Lowveld. And secondly, the ones that are there are surrounded by tall, dense trees, like elongated oases of forest in a sea of open savannah. But most of all, Pel’s Fishing Owls are very good at hiding.

There are seven Pel's Fishing Owls in this picture.

There are seven Pel’s Fishing Owls in this picture.

They have to be. Most owls eat other birds when they can. As a result, they get mobbed mercilessly by other birds if they are exposed during the day. I’ve actually spotted a couple of owls this way. Your attention is attracted by a cloud of shrieking and clamouring birds. Small birds. Starlings and seed-eaters and the like.

No such luck for the Pel’s Fishing Owl. Exposed Pel’s Fishing Owls are mobbed by eagles. Fish Eagles. Every patch of permanent water in the Lowveld is occupied by Fish Eagles. And they’re big. They’re the African version of America’s Bald Eagle. They even look the same.

We don't put ours on flags. We put ours on whiskey.

We don’t put ours on flags. We put ours on whiskey.

Which is a very good reason for the Pel’s Fishing Owl to hide away.

Pel’s Fishing Owls, surprisingly enough, live on fish, mostly barbell, and have specially adapted claws for the purpose. When they get bored they might take a crab or a baby crocodile or two, but they are fairly specialised.

I’ve never seen one, and probably never will. Even dedicated birders are lucky to spot them. But it’s nice to know they’re there.

The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl.

This is the big guy. He’s the third heaviest owl in the world. So big is he that he used to be called the Giant Eagle Owl. Which seems pretty sensible to me. But not to the people who take it upon themselves to rename birds at random.

It's absolutely huge! Let's name it after a dead French guy to avoid confusion.

It’s absolutely huge! Let’s name it after a dead French guy to avoid confusion.

They weigh over two kilograms, slightly more than the Pel’s. And live like it. Like most owls, they will take rodents. But they don’t stop there. They eat birds. Big birds. They will happily take down ducks and geese. As a starter. They also cheerfully eat other owls, and birds as big a Secretary Birds.

Which is this big, and does karate on snakes.

Which is this big, and does karate on snakes.

They eat bigger mammals than rats, too. They will take half-grown monkeys and baby warthogs, and have been seen flying with a 1,8kg mongoose, nearly their own weight.

There is something awe inspiring about them. They just look massive and powerful. And they sound like it, too. They grunt. Like pigs. The first time I heard them, they scared the life out of me. I was walking alone through some thick bush when I heard a guttural “Hunk hunk.” I spun around, coiled and ready to take whatever action a soft pink thing could take when confronted by an angry beast, but there was nothing there.

It was damn lucky it wasn't. I know a bit of karate myself!

And it was damn lucky it wasn’t. I know a bit of karate myself!

I only realised a few years later it was just an owl. A two kilogram, two foot tall owl with freaky pink eyelids, but an owl no less. Because yes, they do have freaky pink eyelids. And no, I don’t know why. It must have something to do with communication, because they really do stand out.

The Verreaux's Eagle Owl is one of the few birds capable of showing embarrassment.

The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is one of the few birds capable of showing embarrassment.

They, too, are mobbed by raptors, but it doesn’t seem to bother them as much. They frequently hunt during the day, and besides, they sometimes catch and eat raptors, so maybe it’s just a case of them playing with their food.

And that, good people, is that when it comes to owls. I will never write about them again, I promise. Unless our garden owls try to take one of the children. That might be worth a post or two.

43 thoughts on “61. Owls. Again. For the last time. I promise.

  1. This is a promise I hope you break. Just my thoughts on it, but do not mind me.

  2. I still love owls. And owl posts. And giraffes, though admittedly I’m reading on my kindle so haven’t seen the film clips yet. And sentences that start with…

    PS That verraux looks like a furby.

  3. Linne says:

    On the other hand, maybe you need a challenge . . . 100 blogs about owls?? That would be fun . . . for us 😉 ~ Linne

  4. Owls are fascinating and so was this post–good job!

  5. limseemin says:

    This is just lovely. Visit mine too! DOn’t forget to follow. Haha 🙂

  6. albertine says:

    My apologies – a quick check tells me that the owls on Mt Coot-tha are actually ‘powerful owls’, not eagle owls at all.

  7. albertine says:

    The owls are good value. I even forwarded the link to my husband (another owl-lover and sometime wit). Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane advertsises itself on road signs as ‘the home of the eagle owl’ – but I still haven’t seen one there. Never out of bed tramping the bush at the right time, I guess.
    PS I am disappointed that your patch is ‘suburb’ – I was imagining the low veldt as a much more dramatic, Kipling-esque terrain.

    • 23thorns says:

      My patch, I’m afraid, is not in the Lowveld. It’s in the Highveld. I spent a lot of time down in the Lowveld growing up, and we still go down quite often. We’re off again next week.

  8. narf77 says:

    I was happily half asleep reading through this post when I suddenly got a gander at that Secretary bird. I am awake now Mr23 Thorns! What the hell IS that thing! I have never been so glad to live in Australia enough of a distance away from Africa so that “thing” can’t ever manage to find me! That sir, is the stuff of nightmares! I am going to start a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl fan club chapter in Tasmania. We might not get to see many of them BUT we will be most appreciative of their abilities in keeping our nocturnal terrors at bay.

    • 23thorns says:

      That, my dear Narf, is god’s own answer to all your poisonous snakes. It’s actually quite handsome when it’s not raining down kung-fu death on puff adders.

      • narf77 says:

        So can anyone tell me why we didn’t import it along with every plant (weed) that we seemed to need to import last century? Something that might have done us some good and we completely seemed to have not bothered with it?

      • 23thorns says:

        I’ll send a couple over with Mrs 23thorns when she stops over in two weeks. I’ll even throw in a honey badger or two. Your snakes will be gone in no time. As will the rest of your wildlife.

      • narf77 says:

        I will most graciously accept your offer of a honey badger. If anything can take on the possums and have a chance in hell of defeating them it would be a honey badger…not saying it WOULD win, just it might survive the onslaught with some fur left at the end. No doubt after the stoush they would all head down to the nearest pub to regroup before their next round and I dare say the noise would be terrible…might drown out the roosters…sigh…Just tell Mrs 23 Thorns to shove one in her cabin luggage. If you sedate it well, it should make it to N.Z. without causing a scene…she can throw it into the water when she gets there and it should float the short distance to Tassie…best hope she doesn’t get delayed. Have you seen “snakes on a plane?”

  9. Typehype says:

    I like your blog. I also like owls. After a nasty day at work, I go to this youtube link for therapy:

  10. […] 61. Owls. Again. For the last time. I promise. […]

  11. KG Visions says:

    Please write about owls again. Love the pink eyelids.

  12. Lyn says:

    I will never write about them again, I promise. Unless our garden owls try to take one of the children Or, perhaps, your garden owls have some owlets and you and Tracy become grandparents 🙂

  13. ioniamartin says:

    I like the owls. Keep coming up with the owls.

  14. OH NO! don’t stop writing about owls!!

    AND…lol…I use to love watching …actually it became addictive at my daughters…a virtual owl box. AND THEN…they had babies. SO..I searched for you and here…HA!
    Take back your promise…stat!

  15. I like reading your blog. This has been quite interesting.


  16. sisteranan says:

    There are no Pel’s owls in that picture.
    Three monkeys, two sparrows, forty-seven earthworms and a ladybug, but no owls.
    i have an optic loop, you know. You’re outed.

  17. Ashana M says:

    I like the idea of the owls taking the children. Maybe you can just make that up?

  18. rarasaur says:

    Haha! This was great. 😀 I think owls were quite worthy of a post! 😀

    • 23thorns says:

      A post, maybe, but that was the fourth!

      • albertine says:

        While I understand the masculine desire for lists and for completeness, there is always space for a quick blast of opinion. Always remember James Bond. (I get the feeling, though, that you are in fact a little tired of assembling blogs about owls.) Can we have pictures of the high, low and intermediate veldts please?
        Yours in ignorance

      • 23thorns says:

        The owls are done for now. As for the velds, maybe soon.

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