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Owls of Australia

Owls are raptors characterised by flat faces, large forward-facing eyes, sharp talons and beaks, upright stances and often circles of feathers under their eyes, known as facial disks.

Owls have long sparked our imaginations; their haunting night calls, silent flight, extraordinary hearing and deadly eyesight has seen them embedded in different cultures as symbols for magic, wisdom and mystery.

Australia has 11 owl species, and seven of these are found on Bush Heritage reserves and partnership properties: the Barn Owl, the Barking Owl, the Powerful Owl, the Rufous Owl, the Sooty Owl, the Masked Owl and the Southern Boobook.

A Southern Boobook Owl at Lawan Reserve in central Victoria. Photo Jeroen van Veen.
A Southern Boobook Owl at Lawan Reserve in central Victoria. Photo Jeroen van Veen.

Owls have evolved a number of remarkable characteristics that make them crafty hunters. Most owls are nocturnal and so hunt only at night, though some are active at dawn and dusk.

They vary greatly in size between species: the smallest (Southern BooBook) weighs just 31g and measures 31cm while the largest (Powerful Owl) can measure up to 84cm (wingspan of 2m) and weigh 4.5kg

Where do owls live?

An Australian Masked Owl. Photo Steve Parish.
An Australian Masked Owl. Photo Steve Parish.

Owls are versatile and live in a range of habitats including snowy, mountainous regions; deserts; open wet forests and rainforests; woodlands and grasslands across the world.

In Australia, owls are found in every state and territory. Most Australian owls rely on old-growth, hollow-bearing trees for nesting and breeding.

Owl behaviour

Owls feed on a diet of small- to medium-sized mammals, birds, and insects. Sooty Owls feed particularly on tree-dwelling mammals such as gliders, while other species prefer land-dwelling mammals or lizards. Like most birds, they’re unable to chew and will mostly eat their prey whole, or if unable to, will tear off pieces.

As predators they play an important role in the ecosystem – controlling population fluctuations and health of surrounding species.

Owls, like other raptors, regurgitate the non-nutritious parts of their prey. Several hours after eating they will produce a pellet from their gizzards and then will be ready to eat again.

A regurgitated pellet from an owl, collected for analysis at Pilungah Reserve. Photo Pippa Kern.
A regurgitated pellet from an owl, collected for analysis at Pilungah Reserve. Photo Pippa Kern.

Owls are equipped with feathers that allow them to fly without making a sound. Their feathers are uniquely structured and serrated to effect the movement of air around the wings, and a velvety surface on the feathers absorbs any sound made by their flapping.

Owls also have superior eyesight and hearing. Their forward-facing eyes give them excellent depth perception, which is required for hunting in low light.

Owls can also turn their heads up to 270 degrees – important as their eyes are fixed and can’t move within their sockets.

Owls’ ears are placed asymmetrically – at different heights on the sides of their faces – so the sounds reach each ear at different times. This is essential to identifying the exact direction of their prey. The facial disk that most owls have around their eyes helps to focus sounds onto their ear cavities so they hear even the quietest sounds.

Most owls, like the Masked Owl, are solitary and shy. However, some owls, like the Powerful Owl, are territorial and attacks on humans have very occasionally been reported.

Threats to owls

A Barking Owl. Photo Robin Ducker.*
A Barking Owl. Photo Robin Ducker.*

Habitat loss is the biggest threat to Australian owls. In particular, they rely on very old trees that have hollows in which they can nest and breed. This means that logging, overstocking (which minimises regeneration of trees) and land clearing all contribute to habitat loss.

Another significant threat is secondary poisoning from eating prey (such as feral rabbits, cats or foxes) that have eaten bait. Some species of owls are also susceptible to poachers – both as live specimens and eggs.

None of the owl species found in Australia are on national threatened species lists, though populations in some areas are under threat (for example the Powerful Owl is vulnerable in Victoria).

What Bush Heritage is doing

We protect old growth forests that provide habitat for owls. The following are found on our reserves.

A Rufous Owl. Photo Andy Tyler.*
A Rufous Owl. Photo Andy Tyler.*

Sooty Owl: Brogo (NSW)
Lesser Sooty Owl: Fan Palm (Qld)
Masked Owl: Liffey River (Tas), Boolcoomatta (SA), Red Moort (WA) and the northern sub species is found on Yourka (Qld)
Barn owl: Pilungah, Ethabuka, Reedy Creek, Yourka, Carnarvon (Qld), Beringa, Eurardy (WA), Naree (NSW), Bon Bon (SA), Nardoo Hills (Vic).
Barking Owl: Goonderoo, Yourka, Carnarvon (Qld)
Powerful Owl: Brogo, Burrin Burrin (NSW).
Rufous Owl: Reedy Creek, Fan Palm (Qld)
Southern Boobook: Ethabuka, Goonderoo, Pilungah, Yourka (Qld), Chereninup, Hamelin, Red Moort, Kojonup, Monjebup, Charles Darwin, Eurardy (WA), Liffey River (Tas), Tarcutta, Scottsdale, Naree (NSW), Nardoo (Vic), Boolcoomatta (SA).

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*Images reproduced from FlickR under a Creative Commons License.