The owls of Australia

By Matt Wright 29 June 2017
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Australia is home to eleven species of owl that collectively cover every state and territory.

There is something magical, mysterious and alluring about owls.

Australia is home to eleven species that collectively cover every state and territory.

From our smallest species the Southern Boobook, standing at 25 cm tall to our largest, the Powerful Owl at 65 cm, owls can be found in various habitats from wet rain forests to open woodlands.

Here, in Australia we have Ninox and Tyto genus of owls.

Nationally, the conservation status of all Australian owl species is ‘not in danger’. However, from state to state owls are facing their own problems due to two main issues.

The first is baiting of prey items such as mice to stop agriculture and farming losses.

The second, habitat loss, is a far bigger issue.

Most of our owl species rely heavily on old growth trees with hollows for breeding. Hollows take hundreds of years to form and land clearing is wiping out these trees at an alarming rate.

Barking owl (Ninox connivens)

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The well-known call of this medium sized hawk-owl is synonymous with that of a dog’s bark— “woof woof”. The Barking Owl inhabits drier woodland and forest type zones, often in edge habitats nearing watercourses such as creeks. Its stature much more Powerful Owl-like than the owls smaller, Boobook counterpart. Its prey consists of large insects, small to medium sized mammals such as Sugar Gliders and small roosting birds.  The barking owl is common in its northern range (Northern Territory and Far-North Queensland) but is becoming less common along the Eastern and Western coasts of Australia.

Rufous owl (Ninox rufa)

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Australia’s second largest owl species is defined by its rufous coloured plumage. Its large yellow eyes are exaggerated by dark eye patches. The Rufous Owl mostly inhabits rain forest zones and is often found roosting in shaded, overgrown vegetation. It is confined to the Northern part of the country with its three sub-species inhabiting Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia. Its diet consists of medium sized mammals and birds. After emerging from their hollow, the offspring of Rufous and Powerful Owls are still covered in white downy feather.

Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua)

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Powerful by name, Powerful by nature. The Powerful Owl is the largest owl species in Australia with males reaching weights of up to 2.2 kg and standing 65 cm tall.  The Powerful Owl is one of the few Australian owls with a standardized “whoo-hoo” call which, is most often heard during winter months when breeding occurs. Unlike the Rufous Owl, Powerful Owls are found in the Southern zones of Australia (South-East Queensland, NSW and Victoria). They are extremely territorial birds with reports of males attacking passers-by if they get too close to nest sites. The owl is often seen roosting during the day with remnants of prey caught the previous night. Possums are a favourite meal.

Southern Boobook (Ninox boobook)

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The Southern Boobook is the smallest and most widespread owl, with 4 sub-species covering mainland Australia. A quintessential sound of the night is the double hoot (“boo-book” or mo-poke”). They have one of the smallest territories of all Australian owls and can often see or hear multiple individuals when searching for them. The owl roosts in dense foliage or safely inside a tree hollow. Their diet consists of large insects, small mammals and birds.

Christmas Island Boobook (Ninox natalis)

Image credit: Kevin Bartram

On October 1st 1958, the Christmas Island Boobook was added to the Australian owl list. Found only on the island which is famous for its red crabs that number in the millions, the Christmas Island Boobook is unique to this area. The colour of this Boobook appears to be a rich reddy brown. They occupy the rain forest and coastal fringes of the island and rely on a diet of large insects, reptiles and amphibians. The owl is not often seen or photographed due to locality.

Morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae)

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Generally categorised together with the Southern Boobook, the Tasmanian and Norfolk Island owls are genetically related to the New Zealand Boobook (aka Morepork). Morepork eyes are a much brighter yellow than Southern Boobooks with a much more spotted appearance. Recently, it has been discovered that Tasmanian populations travel to mainland Australia during Spring with sightings in Victoria.

Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto delicatula)

Image credit: Matt Wright

The Barn Owl is the world’s most recognized owl. This bird is heavily reliant upon rodent populations. The population of these owls often explode during rodent plagues. This ghost like owl is often found in open country, farmland and woodlands. They are often seen perched on wooden fence posts in farm regions at night awaiting the slight movements of its prey.

Eastern Grass Owl (Tyto longimembris)

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The Eastern Grass Owl is Australia’s only owl species that nests exclusively on the ground. The Grass Owl is larger than its Barn Owl counterpart. It’s almost featherless long legs trail behind its tail in flight when it hunts, gliding over low vegetation. Found in northern and eastern parts of Australia, the owl regularly lives in localized pairings. However in places where prey is abundant, loose colonies may occur. The owl is known for its cricket like trill call.

Australian Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae)

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A powerful Tyto owl, the Australian masked owl — a Tasmanian sub-species, is the largest Tyto owl in the world. Its plumage is highly variable. This owl is often confused with the Eastern Barn Owl. However, masked owls have much larger, powerful legs and a broader, rounded facial disc.  This is one of our more elusive, shy owl species, which is predominately a terrestrial hunter targeting prey items such as Bandicoots. They rely on old, large trees with hollows for breeding.

Sooty Owl (Tyto tenebricosa)

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The Sooty Owl is the dark grey ghost of wet sclerophyll forests, hardly seen as it favours the dimly lit rain forest regions of south-eastern Australia. Powerfully built, it is the heaviest of our Tytos. These birds are heavily reliant upon arboreal prey, favouring the large prey such as the Australian Greater Glider. Its contact call is recognized as a “bomb whistle” and is easily one of the scariest sounds of the night. Previously, the sooty owl was considered one species along with its northern Queensland counterpart until they were split in the 1980s.

Lesser Sooty Owl (Tyto multipunctata)

Australian owls
Image credit: Matt Wright

The Lesser Sooty Owl is the small silver cousin to the big black Sooty Owl of south-eastern Australia. Lesser Sooty Owls are endemic to the wet tropics of far-north Queensland. Unlike their southern counterparts, the Lesser Sooty Owl hunts mostly terrestrial based prey of a much smaller size. Its call is also known as the “bomb whistle” but has slight metallic undertones. They are found in higher densities and often seen low in the forest canopy. Young Lesser Sooty Owls will have a darker facial disc than adults who have a much paler face.