There are more than 30 different African owls species on this beautiful continent, with some new species being discovered regularly, particularly within the dense tropical rainforests.
These birds have a rich history within the continent, going as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, and have a place in African folklore.
In this article, we will get to know them better, and some of the significance they hold within the continent.
Some General Info On (South-African) Owls
- Owls are raptors or birds of prey, and they share distinct features with other raptors; a sharp hooked beak and sharp talons.
- Being carnivorous, their diet mainly consists of rodents, but they will also feed on fish, other birds, small deer, foxes, and insects.
- They are mainly nocturnal birds: they sleep during the day and are active at night, but this is not exclusive to all owl species, as some are diurnal.
- These birds are well adapted to their nocturnal lifestyles. Some owls have a set of ears that are set at different heights on their head, which helps them pinpoint a prey’s location based on the difference in how the sound waves produced reach its ears.
- Their flattened facial disks also act like sound funnels to the ears, helping magnify the sounds around them. Their eyes just like in humans are forward facing, and their eyes are not spherical but tubular which grants them better depth perception and allows for greater magnification.
- Although it is a Common misconception: that they can turn their heads up to 360o, they can only move 270o, and this is because they have bony eye sockets, and cannot turn their eyes.
- They also have a trait called eyeshine, in which there is a layer of tissue behind the retina that reflects any visible light, making their eyes glow in the dark and giving them impressive eyesight in darkness.
The silent flight ability of the (African) owl and their special wings.
They also have the impressive ability to fly silently and more slowly when compared to other raptors.
Their wings have adaptations that help reduce aerodynamic disturbances and also absorb the sound of the wing moving, an impressive adaptation for a night hunter.
Their talons are also large relative to the owl’s body, and they are used to knead bodies and crush the skulls of their prey.
Their feathers have unique color combinations that ensure they blend into the environment.
The downside to this silent flight is that owls’ wings are not waterproof.
They may be able to fly in mild rainfall conditions, but they lose the ability to fly in heavy rainfall only temporarily.
Owls unlike other birds do not have a preen gland that secretes a water-repellent oil that is spread over all the feathers of a bird.
Thus, in wet conditions, their feathers become extremely waterlogged, which is why owls have been found to have drowned in water troughs.
13 Specific Owl Species Found in Africa!
There are over 30 species of African owls, but this article will not deal with all of them, but rather with some of the common owl species.
1. The African wood Owl.
This is a medium-sized owl standing at 33 cm in height, with a yellow bill and cere, pale rufous facial disk with grey barrings, dark-rimmed eyes, white eyebrows, and no ear tufts.
Flight and tail feathers are barred dark brown, while the front is a barred russet brown with yellow feet that are feathered to the toes. Its diet mainly consists of insects, small mammals, small birds, small snakes, frogs, and centipedes.
They are widely distributed in Southern Africa in countries ranging from Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Swaziland.
They can be found in densely wooded areas with tall deciduous trees, evergreen, and riparian forests and well-treed gardens.
2. The African Barred Owlet.
The African Barred Owlet has yellow eyes, a green-grey, with hints of yellow bill and cere, pale brown facial disk, white eyebrows, and it has no ear tufts.
The head and nape range from dark earth brown to grey-brown, marked with fine white bars.
Its throat and chest are off-white with large dark brown dots, its flight feathers and scapular ( these are feathers that cover the top part of the wing when the bed is at rest), are cinnamon brown in color, while its toes are yellow, its legs are white and claws are black.
This owl hunts from a perch and its prey are made of small mammals and birds, reptiles, frogs, scorpions, and insects.
They range from Southern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Botswana, and South Africa.
And they can be found in open areas that have riverine forests, woods, and forest edges at elevations below 1200 m.
3. The African Grass Owl.
The African Grass Owl is a medium-sized owl with a round, moon-shaped facial disk, no ear tufts, and long legs.
Their eyes are brown-black and their bill ranges from white to pale pink.
The upper parts of the wings are uniform black-brown with a scattering of grey flecks and white spots.
The underpart area- chest, and stomach are a creamy white with dark spots, and the legs are feathered to the toes, which are a grey-yellow.
They hunt by flying low over the ground in a wavering motion, listening and watching for their prey.
Their diet includes small mammals such as bats, small birds, and large insects.
They prefer open savannah and moist grasslands up to an elevation of 3200 m and can be found from East Africa down to the cape region of South Africa and in Congo and Cameroon.
4. The Greyish Eagle Owl.
Also known as the vermiculated eagle owl, the African eagle owl, or the Kenya eagle owl, this is a medium owl standing at 43 cm.
It has a brown facial disk marked with a heavy brown circle around the eyes, with buff, dark brown, and white upperparts and finely barred (vermiculated) grey-brown underparts.
It feeds on small mammals such as bats and large insects.
They prefer lowland forests, open savannahs, and dry rocky deserts and can be found in the drier upper part of sub-Saharan Africa from Somalia, Sudan, to Mauritania.
5. Verreaux’s Eagle Owl.
This is the largest Owl in Africa standing at 65 cm and is also known as the Giant Eagle Owl.
They have a creamy white facial disk, that is ringed by black feathers, bright pink eyelids, blueish cere, pale cream bill, and ear tuffs.
They are mostly grey-brown with white fine barring, that really becomes visible when the owl is vocalizing.
Its toes are partially covered while its legs are fully covered by feathers.
Due to their size, and strong talons, they are opportunistic hunters and will take down whatever they can catch and kill from animals to other owls, and both adult birds and chicks.
They prefer thorny shrubs, wooded dry savannahs, and riverine forests, and are widely spread out throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, from Mali to Tanzania to South Africa.
6. Pel’s Fishing Owl.
Pel’s Fishing Owl does not have a prominent facial disk, but it is reddish brown without a distinct border, has dark brown eyes, grey cere, black bill, and no tuffs.
It has rufous-brown upper parts, with light fine barrings, white throat, and pale brown underparts, while the underwing coverts and thighs are a light brown.
Their primary food is fish ranging in weight from 100 g to 2000 g, but they will also take mussels, crabs,s and frogs.
Even though their feathers aren’t waterproof, these birds will hunt from a branch overhanging the water and will swoop and seize fish without immersing themselves in water.
They can be found along rivers, lakes, swamps, riverine forests, and estuaries about 1700 m.
They are distributed across Sub-Saharan Africa in Mali, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Eastern South Africa, and Botswana.
7. Pharaoh Eagle Owl.
Also known as the Sahara Eagle Owl, or Desert Eagle Owl, this is a medium-sized owl standing at 45 cm.
The facial disk is a pale brown-orange and has a rim of fine black spots, the eyes range from deep orange to yellow, the bill is black, the cere is grey, and the ear tuffs are short and pointed, tawny with dark speckles.
The throat is white, while the rest of the underparts are sandy colored to pale tawny, while the upper parts are brown-red with individual feathers having dark shaft steaks with whitish spots.
The Desert Eagle feeds mainly on small mammals, reptiles, birds, scorpions, and large insects.
These owls are distributed throughout Northwest Africa and in a few locations in Egypt.
They prefer semi and rocky deserts, dry rocky mountains, cliffs, mountain gorges, oasis outcrops, and dry savannahs.
8. The Sokoke Scops Owl.
The Sokoke Scops Owl is one of the smallest African owls with a pale brown-grey facial disk with darker brown concentric rings around the facial disk.
The eyes and cere are a pale yellow, the upper parts are a grey-dark brown with the crown having streaks of black, while the underparts are grey-brown with white spots and dark barrings.
The toes are a pale grey-brown, and the claws are dark brown.
Due to their small size, they mainly feed on insects, and they can be found in forests and thick woodlands with trees taller than 4 m, and at altitudes of between 50 m to 400 m.
They are endemic to the coastal rainforests of Kenya, northeastern Tanzania, and the Usambara mountains.
9. The Africa Scops Owl.
The Africa Scops Owl is a small owl standing at just 19 cm tall.
The facial disk is grey with a black outline, and the eyes are yellow, with well-developed ear tuffs.
The upper parts are grey or brown with fine dark vermiculated lines, the scapulars have a white area forming a white band across the shoulders, and the underparts have the same colorations as the upper parts.
Their diet mainly consists of arthropods such as insects, scorpions, and spiders and small vertebrates such as birds, geckos, frogs, and rodents.
They are distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, apart from the densely forested areas, and they can be found in wooded savannahs at elevations below 2000 m.
10. The Frasers Eagle Owl.
This is a medium-sized owl with prominent ear tufts that are tousled.
The facial disk is a pale rufous colour with a broad dark red rim, the eyes are dark brown with pale blue eyelids, and the cere and bill are grey-blue.
The upper parts are a red-brown barred with dark brown, while the scapulars range from dark brown to creamy white giving the impression of a row of dark dots across the shoulder.
The underparts are pale brown shifting to a creamy white on the belly, and the legs are feathered to the toes and are densely barred.
They hunt from perches, and their diet mainly consists of small mammals such as bats, squirrels, mice as well as birds, reptiles, insects, and frogs.
They can be found in lowland evergreen primary and secondary forests, cardamom plantations, forest edges and clearings below 1600 m.
They are distributed from West Africa to Central Africa and also on the Bioko Islands in the Gulf of Guinea.
11. The Marsh Owl.
This is a medium-sized owl with a pale brown facial disk and a distinct dark brown rim with small erectile earth-brown ear tuffs that are located near the center of the head.
The eyes are dark brown, the bill is black, the cere is grey-brown, the upperparts are a plain earthy brown, while the crown and nape have fine brown vermiculations, the tail feathers have a white tip, and are dark brown with pale buff barrings.
The underparts are brown with fine vermiculations and the legs are covered leaving the toes bare. They mainly feed on small rodents, insects, and small birds
They can be found in open countries from savannahs, inland marshes, montane grasslands, and moors to coastal marshes. They are distributed from Eastern Africa to South Africa.
12. African Spotted Eagle Owl.
Also known as the spotted Eagle Owl, this is a medium-sized owl at 45 cm with yellow eyes and a pale white facial disk and prominent ear tufts and is fairly known amongst African owls.
The lower parts of the body are a creamy white with brown bars and a pale brown upper body.
Its prey consists of small mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds.
They occur throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and are particularly common in South Africa and can be found in thorny savannahs, and close to the human population.
13. The Madagascar Owl.
They are similar in size to a small barn owl and have an overall pale red-to-yellow colour with small black spots.
The eyes are a sooty black, the cere is reddish, the beak is pale grey, while the facial disk is a light brown, and the eyes are black and the feet a smoky grey with pale brown claws.
They are amongst the most rare African owls, because they are native to Madagascar only.
Their diet includes insects and rodents and they hunt in rice fields and along forest edges.
They prefer humid rainforests, forest clearings, edges, secondary scrub, and rice paddies and can only be found in Madagascar.
More FAQs on African owls
1. What do African Owls Symbolize in cultures like in South Africa?
Owls are a very divisive bird in many African cultures.
In the West, owls are associated with wisdom, but in Africa, they are associated with death, misfortune, foolishness and witchcraft.
Some cultures believe that when an owl sings near the house, or in the vicinity of a sick person, that they will perish soon.
The only way to stop that is to chase them away, using burning firewood, as stones will not work. In other cultures, they are usually connected with witchcraft, and sighting one is considered bad luck in itself.
Most of the ill omens towards owls may arise from the fact that owls are nocturnal birds.
In many African cultures, activities that were frowned upon such as witchcraft and sorcery were seen to be practiced in the dead of night, and since owls are extremely active during the night, thus the association.
This negative association with owls has led to their discrimination hampering their conservation efforts.
Many cultures across Africa have to be sensitized towards the benefits of having owls around and their importance in the ecosystem.
This sensitization is important to ensure that owls continue thriving wherever they may be.
2. What sounds do African Owls produce?
Owls make a variety of noises, that are continuous and loud. These range from hoots, whistles, barks, cries and coos.
Their most known sound is the hoot, which is usually deep and soft and can be used to search for mates and claim a territory.
These sounds can be a nuisance to many people, due to the owls being active at night and sleeping during the day.
3. How do Owls sleep?
Being nocturnal, most owls sleep during the day, but they can also be flexible when they go to sleep.
Adult owls will sleep perched in an upright position, using their strong feet and sharp talons to keep them secured.
Young owls on the other hand sleep laying down, on a fairly flat surface as this helps rest their developing muscles. And yes, they can perch upright, but it can be tiring keeping their heads above ground.
4. What is the rarest owl in Africa?
One of the rarest owls in Africa is the African Grass Owl (Tyto capensis). This species is considered rare and is listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The African Grass Owl is found in certain grassland habitats in sub-Saharan Africa, and its populations are declining due to habitat loss, changes in land use, and other threats.
Which is the biggest owl in Africa?
The Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus), also known as the Giant Eagle-Owl or Milky Eagle Owl, is considered one of the largest owl species in Africa. It is known for its impressive size and is the largest owl species on the continent. Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl has a wingspan that can exceed 5 feet (about 1.5 meters) and can stand about 2 feet (60 centimeters) tall.
My Final Conclusion.
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