The Owls of Africa

The Owls of Africa

From folklore to pop culture, owls have fascinated humans for centuries. These peculiar birds of prey belong to the order Strigiformes, comprising over 200 species – around 50 of which can be found on the African continent.

There are two families of owls: the true owls of the Strigidae family and the barn and bay owls of the Tytonidae family. Africa is home to eleven known genera. Let’s take a look at the types of owls you can find in Africa.

Eagle owls

Close relatives of the horned owls of the Americas, eagle owls also bear the characteristic ear tufts synonymous with most species of the genus Bubo. Some eagle owls fall under the Ketupa genus and are often grouped with the fish owls. There are seven eagle owl species in Africa, including the Pharoah eagle owl of North Africa and the Middle East, the Cape eagle owl of southern and East Africa, and the spotted eagle owl,  which is among the most widely distributed species south of the Sahara.

Spotted Eagle Owl

Another widespread species is the Verreaux’s eagle owl, also known as the giant eagle owl. It is the largest African owl, reaching up to twenty-six inches (just over two feet), with a four-foot-seven wingspan. 

Despite its wide range, this large, powerful raptor is rarely encountered. Giant eagle owls require vast territories and occur at low densities. They are highly opportunistic predators often persecuted by farmers. Other threats include pesticide poisoning, collision with powerlines and other infrastructure, and habitat destruction.

Another species under threat is Shelly’s eagle owl of Central and West Africa. It is a dusky, heavily barred species and among the largest owls in the world. These rare owls of the rainforest are at risk due to habitat loss. They are currently evaluated as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Scop’s owls

Scop’s owls belong to the Otus genus, which is only found in Africa and Asia. They are small, compact, agile owls, many of which inhabit islands. Their plumage is typically brown, with lighter underparts. Some species are polymorphic, with grey-brown and red-brown variants. Of the thirteen species of Scop’s owls that occur in Africa, at least six are endangered, mainly owing to habitat destruction within their restricted ranges.

The clearing of mountain cloud forests in Seychelles, coupled with introduced invasive animals, resulted in the plummeting of the Seychelles scops owl populations. Also known as the bare-legged scops owl, this species is now critically endangered, with less than 300 individuals.

African scops owl

Of the four species in Comoros, three are endangered. Other vulnerable and endangered species include the Sokoke scops owl of Kenya and Tanzania, the São Tomé scops owl, and the Pemba scops owl.

Not all island species are at risk. The rainforest scops owl, endemic to Madagascar, is found throughout the island. It is a fairly small owl with prominent, pale brows that extend into erect ear tufts. This species inhabits humid tropical forests and feeds on large insects and small vertebrates.

The Eurasian scops owl, which breeds in Europe and Asia, can be spotted in Africa outside of the breeding season. It can be confused with the African scops owl, but the latter is larger.

At six inches long, the African scops owl is one of the smallest owl species on the continent. It is found in woodlands, forests, mangroves, and gardens. Both the Eurasian and African scops owls have well-camouflaged plumage that can easily blend in with the bark of a tree.

Barn owls

Barn owls belong to the Tyto genus and are likely the most widely known owls. They are also among the most persecuted, despite being incredibly useful animals. These owls are feared across many cultures, earning the names demon owls or ghost owls, owing to their pale, ghost-like appearance, unique facial features, and characteristic eerie screech. Many myths and false beliefs have resulted in the widespread persecution of these birds.

Fortunately, barn owls are resilient and widespread owls. There are three species in Africa, including the African grass owl, which belongs to the barn-owl family. The western barn owl is the most widespread species in Africa. Its cosmopolitan range includes Europe, parts of Asia, and most of Africa. 

African grass owl

The red owl is a rare species endemic to Madagascar. It has black-spotted, orange-red plumage for which it is named and is smaller than its cosmopolitan relative. Red owls are forest-dwelling birds that feed on small mammals. The exact population size is unknown, but the species is believed to be in decline based on estimates and is currently evaluated as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Barn owls are named for their tendency to nest in barns, sheds, and other human-made structures. While they are nocturnal, they are often spotted during the day flying between roosts.

Pygmy owls

These are small owls, or “owlets,” of the Glaucidium genus, which includes the smallest African owl. The red-chested owlet of the tropical rainforests is only 5.5 inches in size. Pygmy owls prey on insects and small vertebrates.

pearl-spotted owlet

The pearl-spotted owlet is the most widespread species found across sub-Saharan Africa. It is also among the smallest owl species in Africa, ranging from six to eight inches in size. This tiny owl has a distinct call, composed of a series of loud, shrill, whistling notes that can be heard day and night.

While they typically hunt at night, pearl-spotted owlets are fairly active during the day. They are named for the pearl-white spots on their cinnamon-brown plumage. Another species active during the day is the African barred owlet. This owl is often spotted on a perch, scanning for insects, frogs, lizards, and rodents.

Fishing owls

There are only three owls in the Scotopelia genus, all of which live in sub-Saharan Africa and are closely related to the Ketupa owls.

Pel’s fishing owl is the most widely distributed species. Its range spans most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a large, heavy species, measuring up to two feet tall, with a five-foot wingspan, weighing around five pounds. Pel’s fishing owls inhabit riverine forests but can also be found along lakes, wetlands, and estuaries.

Pel’s fishing owl

Fishing owls are well-adapted to their aquatic lifestyle. They have minimal feathering on their legs and spiky scales at the bottom of their feet for gripping slippery fish. These owls are sensitive to habitat destruction due to their reliance on large freshwater bodies and are impacted by damning, siltation, draining, overfishing, and water pollution.

The rufous fishing owl, endemic to West Africa, is in rapid decline due to habitat loss and persecution. It is classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Its close relative, the vermiculated fishing owl of tropical west-central Africa, appears to be doing much better, having a wide range and stable population.

Wood owls

There are 22 species of the genus Strix, of which only three are found in Africa. Wood owls are robust, powerful raptors of the forest. They are highly nocturnal and prey on small mammals, reptiles, and birds. 

African wood owl

Wood owls can be easily distinguished from eagle owls by their rounded heads, lack of ear tufts, and distinctive hooting. The African wood owl is widespread across sub-Saharan Africa. It has rich brown plumage with pale underparts, large dark eyes, and white brows. Pairs can be heard calling in duet at night.

In the north of the continent, there is the Maghreb owl, which is found in northwestern Africa, and the desert owl, which inhabits rocky ravines, desert, and palm groves of the Arabian Peninsula—in Africa, it can only be found in Egypt.

White-faced owls

There are only two species of white-faced owls. Once considered the same species, they have gone their separate ways taxonomically. The northern white-faced owl has a range that spans from Senegal and Gambia in the west to Djibouti and Kenya in the east. 

southern white-faced owl

Its southern counterpart, the southern white-faced owl can be found across most of southern Africa and as far north as Uganda. Both species have white faces for which they are named. They have grey plumage with dark streaks and whitish underparts. The northern white-faced owl is paler, with more white in its plumage and less streaking on the underparts.

Eared owls

Eared owls are named for their prominent ear tufts. They also have distinctive facial discs and long wings. There are four African owl species that belong to the eared owl genus Asio.

Marsh Owl

The marsh owl has a sporadic distribution across southern Africa. It inhabits grasslands, marshes, and scrublands, nesting on the ground and feeding on insects and small vertebrates. Though not listed as endangered, marsh owls are at risk due to habitat loss and destruction.

Other African species include the rare Abyssinian owl of Ethiopia and Kenya and the Madagascan owl, endemic to the Island of Madagascar.

The long-eared owl, which has an extensive range across the Northern Hemisphere can also be found in pockets of North Africa.

Little owls

These are small owls with white-speckled brown plumage, white brows, and yellow eyes. They belong to the genus Athene. There are nine extant species of little owls, of which only two are found in Africa.

Owl of Minerva

The Owl of Minerva, or simply the little owl, is the most widespread with a range that spans across Eurasia and North Africa. This species has long been associated with the Roman goddess Minerva (or Athena in Greek mythology) and represents knowledge and wisdom.

The only other species found in Africa is the white-browed owl, endemic to Madagascar where it is found in dry forests and cultivated lands. It is a small, dumpy owl with a rounded head and prominent white brows.

Itombwe owl

Also known as the Congo bay owl, this species has been placed in the bay owl genus, Phodilus, but is now believed to be more similar to the barn owls. It may also be a monotypic species in a genus of its own.  

Itombwe owl

The Itombwe owl is a peculiar-looking bird. It resembles the barn owl in plumage colouration and facial characteristics but is smaller with a U-shaped facial disc. 

It is a rarely encountered species, and little is known about its ecology and geographic range, but it is believed to inhibit montane forests in Central Africa. While its taxonomy, ecology, and distribution remain unclear, its conservation status is almost certain. Itombwe owls are listed as endangered due to habitat loss.

Maned owl

The maned owl is the only species in the genus Jubula, named for its long, white-tipped ear tufts that flop to the sides, resembling a mane. It is a medium-sized owl with a large head and rufous plumage with streaked buff underparts.

Maned owl

The species has a patchy distribution in West and Central Africa. Maned owls live in tropical rainforests and nest in tree cavities or the abandoned stick nests of other birds. As with the Itombwe owl, little is known about the species.

Final Thoughts

The African continent is rich in owl species, which is fortunate since owls are ecologically valuable, playing an important role in controlling pest populations. 

Their value is especially high in the agricultural sector. Despite this, they are still heavily persecuted across the continent. More awareness outreach is needed to debunk myths and educate people on the importance and value of these mystical birds.

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