June 17, 2024

African Wood Owl

What is it about OWLS?

Owls the world over are fascinating creatures in that few other birds have so many contradictory beliefs about them. These superstitions label them lucky or unlucky, wise or foolish and they are feared or respected, revered or despised, depending on the culture. These myths are handed down through generations and are associated with primitive and uneducated peoples, though they can still persist in more enlightened societies, with witchcraft and magic, death or portents of personal calamity, prophecy and natural or abnormal phenomena mixed into the brew.

Barn Owl

Harare has a number of owls and the most common one is the Barn Owl.

Its roosting and nesting habitat in the wild is rocks and cliffs, and in open areas in hollows in trees like baobabs, or in Hamerkop nests, but it has adapted well to buildings. With its ghostly appearance and eldritch screeching call, it is no wonder that it is regarded as a witch’s bird by most Africans and in other parts of the world has been called the Ghost Owl, the Demon Owl, the Screaming, Screech or Scritch Owl, the Hissing Owl, the Phantom Owl and the Owl of Evil Omen!

Despite all these negative insinuations, it is also, happily, regarded as a symbol of good fortune and luck and, in fact, is a good friend to city dwellers for the rodent control services it provides. Understandably, it is not so great when they nest in your ceiling because of the mess they can make and only the most tolerant person allows them to stay! In some cases people get them relocated into nearby empty garden sheds or put up owl boxes where they can raise their large brood (up to 19 in times of rodent plagues but typically half this number!) and thus can still enjoy their benefits without the mess.

The Spotted Eagle-owl seems to come and go in my area of Newlands but other people enjoy them on a regular basis. Until recently, it was not recorded breeding in Harare gardens, unlike the situation in Bulawayo. The new records involved owls breeding on a 5,000-litre water tank in Borrowdale – and falling off every year! A large wooden box was made and the chicks were moved to a thatched aviary where they were hand-reared and frozen day-old chicks were supplied by Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary to ensure a diet containing bones. The owl parents were involved and dropped rodents by the aviary door! Now that’s the sort of dedication we like to see. In the wild, they mainly nest on the ground under rocks and in holes or in the forks of trees. In Harare, they are also helping us keep our gardens rodent-free.

The Southern White-faced Scops-owl

The Southern White-faced Scops-owl is much less common – only occasionally do I hear their call.

They can be hard to see but are small and beautiful with orange-red eyes on a white facial disc bordered with black and long “ears” and when threatened can elongate the body and head, slit their eyes, erect the ear-tufts and very effectively blend in against the bark of a tree.

They nest in hollows and forks of trees but also use the stick nests of birds like the Grey Go-away-bird. We once had the great opportunity to observe them in the hollow of a msasa tree at the entrance to Ewanrigg Botanical Gardens – and almost at eye level! They eat rodents, insects and birds, another useful owl to have in the city. The African Wood-owl, like the White-faced, is also relatively uncommon and hard to spot, particularly as they like to roost in thick, dark vegetation. This is a pity as it is another gorgeous little owl with big dark eyes and a distinct yellow beak.

By the way, both this and the White-faced have very attractive calls; the wood owl’s described in Zulu as “Weh, mameh.” They eat mainly insects but have a varied diet that also includes rodents. So now, it is up to the folklorists to take a page from the Barn Owl’s book and get wise! All our owls are harmless and actually beneficial.

Most importantly, don’t use rat poison in your garden – it causes a great deal of harm and is unnecessary. Rather encourage and enjoy what owls you have in your area and let them control your rodent problem… you are lucky to have another good friend in the neighborhood.

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