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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 18

From Issue No 18

They can hear mice walk

 

Spotted Eagle-Owl – Bubo Africanus (Afrikaans: Gevlekte Ooruil)

 

The Spotted Eagle-Owl is the commonest of our owls and is found all over the country, but prefers rocky or well wooded areas. A distinguishing feature is the long ear tufts, but these are purely for show, as they have nothing to do with the actual ears. It is very similar in appearance to the Cape Eagle-Owl, which is less common and slightly bigger.

The eyes are very big, varying in colour from yellow to golden orange. The bill and legs are black. The Eagle-Owl rests or sleeps during the day, hidden in rock ledges or in thick foliage of big trees. They can be seen at sunset or early morning perched on telephone poles or fencing posts, on the roofs of houses, and a favourite place in built-up areas is on top of the cover of halogen lights in public parks, where they are well hidden in the shadow of the light cover, but can get a very good view of the ground which is well lit. There they can watch for big insects, rhino beetles and rodents and lizards, and occasionally birds.

The fact that owls like to perch on telephone and electricity poles along the main roads is the cause of many casualties amongst them. At night when cars flatten insects, rodents and lizards on the road, the owls will come down onto the road surface to feed on the prey remains and are then hit by passing vehicles. On one single trip from Somerset West to Brandvlei in the Northern Cape, we counted nine dead owls hit that night on the road.

The eyes of this owl are very well developed with good night vision, with eyeballs bigger than those of humans. They still cannot see in total darkness, so to be able to hunt on dark nights they have a remarkably well developed hearing ability. The ears are placed within the big facial disc round the face which helps to amplify the sound of moving rodents and insects. The owl is able to pin-point the sounds of these creatures, enabling him to pounce even in total darkness and hit its prey most of the time.

The feathers of the owl are soft and fluffy and this makes it possible for completely silent flight. This is very useful, especially for catching their favourite prey of rodents, which have very good hearing themselves.

There are many legends and myths surrounding these birds. On the old Cape farms it was believed that if a Spotted Eagle-Owl roosted on your roof at night, it would surely mean a death in the family. It didn’t matter where these deaths occurred, even in the next province, the poor old owl always got the blame. The hu-hoo call does sound a bit ghostly.

Nesting is mainly in the summer months. The nests could be on the old nests of other birds of prey, on platforms of old tree houses, on a thick branch of a big oak tree, in natural holes in trees, in old wells, on rock ledges on cliffs, in lofts of buildings, in window flower boxes, and occasionally on the ground under a big tree, specially under a big pine tree where there is a mat of pine needles on the ground. They lay 2–3 white eggs.

One thing that the owl will have to face when the day of reckoning for owls comes, is the fact that they are responsible for many Hamerkop nests being lost to the owners. The Hamerkop makes a huge nest, up to 2,5 metres tall, completely enclosed, with an opening on the underside. It takes the Hamerkop six months or more to build this huge nest, but when it is completed and the birds come out to shake the dust out of their feathers, they on their return often find a family of Eagle-Owls have moved into the nest! This in my opinion is the main reason why Hamerkops have become quite rare where once they were common.

Sometimes the owls nest on the roof of the Hamerkop nest, in which case they can live quite happily together. Once in Somerset West we had a hide up on an old tree house floor at an owl’s nest. Lower down in the same tree a pair of Laughing Doves had a nest with two eggs. We were sure that the chicks would be taken as soon as they were about ten days old, as dove chicks are regularly brought to feed baby owls. Unbelievably the dove chicks grew up and eventually fledged.

You can attract owls to your garden if you have a few big trees near your house. Get hold of an old bushel basket. They are now plentiful on grape farms where plastic crates have taken over from baskets. Tie this firmly to a branch about 3–4 metres high. The owls just cannot resist a basket – it allows them to see out through the slits, while they are completely hidden. Put some pine needles in the bottom to form a hollow in the middle, or else the eggs will roll to one side.

If Fido has sadly passed away and you no longer have a use for his kennel, you can nail it up in a tree, where it will be put to good use by a pair of Eagle-Owls. Don’t forget the pine needles; they make the perfect lining for eggs in a nest.

At Somerset West part of my duties in the Municipality’s Parks Department was tree removal for road widening or other developments. On three occasions in my eighteen years of duty, trees with an owl nest had to be removed. One nest was on a farm next to the house. The farmer had built a new house about 70 metres away and was very sad to leave his owl nest. We then applied the basket system. We put the eggs into a bushel basket and in four stages, 24 hours apart, we moved the bushel from one tree to another. After the fourth day the nest was right in front of the farmer’s new lounge window, owl and all.

The other two occasions were also successful. We established one nest on the Somerset Golf Course, and the other we moved to a public park. The owls went on using the three nests for many years.

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Spotted Eagle-owl. The distinctive "ear" tufts are not ears at all

The distinctive "ear" tufts on owls are not ears at all

Coming in to land, the owl forms a perfect landing chute with its wings

Coming in to land, the owl forms a perfect landing chute with its wings – the natural forerunner to modern paragliders! It will hit the exact spot every time, even in the dark

The owl taking off from its perch

The owl taking off from its perch

A chick – one of two – peering out from its nest in the trunk of a tree

A chick – one of two – peering out from its nest in the trunk of a tree

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