Don't howl when you see an owl

Published May 29, 2004


By Noor-Jehan Yoro Badat

Sudden movements in the grass catch hold of his binocular vision, and only the muted sounds of his spreading wings give away his predatory intent.

Swooping down from his perch he keeps his target in sight, and with a swift movement stretches out his talons for the kill. And in the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg, no one hears the dying sounds of his prey - the owl is a formidable silent hunter.

Sadly these magnificent birds of prey - or raptors - are themselves falling victim to man's ignorance.

But to rectify this, the Johannesburg Zoo, in conjunction with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Pretoria Zoo, has hosted Owl Week.

The need for an introduction into the world of owls was becoming a necessity because of myths that surrounded owls, said Martin-John van Rooyen, an educationist at the

Johannesburg Zoo.

People's cultural and superstitious beliefs portray owls as omens of bad luck and death.

Jenny le Roux, manager of the Raptor Conservation Group - a working group for the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) - said these negative superstitions about owls resulted in their persecution and death.

"These superstitions need to be addressed urgently, as owls are gentle nocturnal birds that do a great service to humankind by controlling rats and mice, and many pest insects such as cockroaches," she said.

Van Rooyen mentioned that "people are also not paying attention to how they treat the environment that we share with the owls".

Pesticides and rodenticides were major threats to owls in urban areas.

"People often unknowingly use rodenticides that are highly toxic to owls, and it is very important for the public to find out more about the correct rodenticides to use," said Le Roux.

Van Rooyen said owls have been found dead in urban and rural areas due to the negative effects of poison.

According to the recent issue of Endangered Wildlife , owls are still being flattened by traffic on the N17 due to the spillage of grain which attracts mice, and consequently owls.

Of the three species that are affected - the marsh owl (Asio capensis,) the grass owl (Tyto capensis), and the barn owl (Tyto alba) - it is the grass owl that is of most concern.

It is listed as "Vulnerable" in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds."

Van Rooyen said that many of the owls' natural habitats, such as the savannahs and bushveld, are being destroyed by development.

With nowhere to go, these raptors come to the city and nest in the trees. Le Roux said it was the spotted eagle-owl (Bubo africanus) and the barn owl that had adapted well to this new environment. Other species such as the white-faced owl and the Verreaux's eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus) have not adapted quite as well.

Increased urbanisation has in many instances increased the opportunities for the spotted eagle-owl and the barn owl, as it has provided them with many nesting sites such as buildings and trees.

"And along with people have come many prey species for these owls such as mice and rats, as well as many birds, which have also been attracted by the increased forestation.

"However, having said that, although there are more prey species and nesting sites, it is often more difficult for the owls to hunt their prey species, especially where open fields have been transformed to building sites. Owls do need the open spaces to fly down and catch their prey," explained Le Roux.

Interestingly, she said: "I do know of a case however, where a spotted eagle-owl was seen sitting on the dustbins in a town-house complex, waiting for the rats and mice to emerge in

order to catch them!"

There are 12 species of owls in South Africa, and the ones most common in Gauteng are the barn owl and spotted eagle-owl.

Here is some other interesting information on owls:

- The very large Verreaux's eagle-owl is capable of eating small cats. They eat very big rats that smaller owl species have difficulty in consuming.

- The most important way to save owls is to use the correct rodenticides. Contact the Poison Working Group of the EWT at 082-446-8946 for information.

- Owls are beneficial to people, and should be encouraged, not persecuted. Owl boxes can be placed in large trees in the garden, or against the wall of a building under the eaves of the roof, to create suitable nesting sites for them.

- Owls are important rodent controllers. A pair of barn owls and their young are capable of consuming 3 000 mice per year!

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