Owls and Nightjars

Barn Owl, Alice springs Desert Park

Owls and Nightjars are more common in the Australian bush than most of us realise.  Most are nocturnal – active at night – so we are largely unaware of their presence.  We may hear the hooting of an owl in the early hours of the morning, or see a dark shape fly silently overhead if we are outside at night, but otherwise we are unlikely to see them.

During the day they rest quietly, perched high up in a tree, or in a tree hollow, or perhaps even in the eaves of buildings or barns, a habit from which the Barn Owl take its name.  If you are lucky enough to see one during daylight hours, it is most probably because other birds have given away their location. Smaller birds do not tolerate the presence of owls and nightjars in their territory, probably fearing for their young, and usually create quite a ruckus in their attempt to drive away the intruder.  We have been able to locate a few owls by investigating such sounds of commotion in the bush, most notably two juvenile Southern Boobook Owls and their parent in the Red Banks Nature Reserve in South Australia.  Nirbeeja heard some highly agitated Pee-Wees in the nearby woodland, went off to investigate, and returned very excited a few minutes later to lead me to her discovery!

Juvenile Southern Boobook Owls, daytime, Red Banks Conservation Reserve, South Australia

Nightjars are often mistaken for owls, and while they do share their nocturnal nature and some similarities in appearance, there are distinct differences.  The major difference is that owls are raptors, that is, they catch prey in their talons, whereas members of the nightjar family only catch prey with their beak.

Owls are remarkable creatures, having evolved many fascinating features to aid their night-time hunting.  They have huge eyes to aid their nocturnal vision, so huge, in fact, that there is no room in their skull for muscles to move their eyes, which as a result stare straight ahead.  But nature has found a way around this ‘problem’, for owls have evolved 14 vertebrae in their necks, twice as many as humans, allowing for a 270 degree turn of their head.  And while most birds have eyes on the sides of their head, owls have them on the front, giving them keen stereoscopic vision and depth perception to assist their hunting.

Owls also have remarkably acute hearing to detect their prey at night on the forest floor.  Most owls have asymmetrical skulls, with their ears positioned at slightly different levels to enable them to pinpoint their prey by the sounds they make.  You may also have noticed the distinctive concave shape of the feathers around the face of an owl; this is to funnel sound to their ears, enabling them to capture the faintest of sounds.

Anyone who has seen an owl in flight will marvel at their almost total silence.  This is the result of feathers along the front of their wings, which act to dampen any noise in flight.  They really are nature’s stealth plane!  During her time as a wildlife carer in Canberra, Nirbeeja had an adult Barn Owl in care as it recuperated from a broken wing.  The time came to release the bird, and we ventured out at night to the grounds of the National Library, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin; the original territory of the owl.  The return of an animal from care to its life in the wild is always a time of joy for the carer, indicating a successful rehabilitation, but there is often also a sense of anxiety as you wonder whether it will cope or, in the case of a bird, be able to fly.  We need not have worried for this owl, for as soon as it realised that its cage was open, it flew off like a silent, ghostly figure into the night.  It was my first experience of the complete silence of an owl in flight, an exhilarating experience for Nirbeeja and me, and no doubt too for the owl.

The Southern Boobook Owl is perhaps the most common across Australia, although it is more likely heard at night than seen.  You have likely all heard its familiar ‘boo-book’ or ‘mo-poke’ call.  We were also fortunate to hear a Barking Owl in the Kimberley, and can attest that it is appropriately named, though we regret that we did not see the bird.

The Nightjars are also common across Australia.  The most common members of that family are the Tawny Frogmouth and the tiny Australian Owlet Nightjar.   During the day the Tawny Frogmouth sits in trees and, if approached, will sit quite still and poke its head to the sky, doing its level best to resemble a broken branch on the tree.  With mottled colouring resembling tree-bark, and rough feathers to mask its facial profile, this is a remarkable act of camouflage and the Tawny Frogmouth often goes unnoticed.  This bird will also sway slowly as it perches in the tree to mimic the movement of the branches in the wind.

Tawny Frogmouth trying to look like a stick, Alice Springs Desert Park

Close-up of the feathers around the face of a Tawny Frogmouth - a wonderful disguise when they are perched in a tree.

We had a fledgling Tawny Frogmouth in care in Canberra, and it resembled a huge ball of fluff with two enormous eyes.  We both fell totally in love with it.  Those two eyes would follow our every movement as we wandered around our backyard.

The Australian Owlet Nightjar is common in our native forests, and is the smallest Australian member of its family.  It is around the size of a Willie Wagtail, but true to its nocturnal habits has relatively enormous eyes.  It is a beautiful little bird.

Australian Owlet Nightjar on forest floor at night, Warren National Park, south western WA

The populations of many of our owls and nightjars are in decline, with several species now listed as endangered.  Like many native species, owls and nightjars nest in tree hollows, preferring those in old large trees.  Many such trees have been cleared for agriculture and forestry, while drought and bushfires have also destroyed many nesting sites.  The problem is compounded by the territorial nature of owls and nightjars; mated pairs are usually unable to cope with the loss of nesting sites in their territory, as they are unable and unwilling to move to new territories.

Owls in human culture

In some cultures the owl, as a creature of the night, is believed to symbolize death, especially when encountered in dreams.  I prefer the association of owls with wisdom and insight,  the ability to understand life at a deeper level.  In many Native American traditions the owl is regarded as a protector spirit.  The owl, named Dumby, played an important role in the creation story of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia’s Kimberley region.

We often use the expression ‘wise old owl’ as a compliment. In our  modern world with its fixation on youth, the ‘old’ part might not be well received, but owls and wisdom seem to go hand in hand.  In the Girl Guide tradition the title of Brown Owl is bestowed upon the leader, thus implying that she is the person of greatest wisdom in the group.

For many years I have incorporated iridology – the study of the iris, or coloured part of the eye – in my naturopathic practice. Eyes are fascinating things. They are, after all, regarded as the windows of the soul.  And no creature has more beautiful, hypnotic, larger or clearer eyes than the owl.  I can become totally mesmerized staring at photos of owl-eyes!  I find it fascinating therefore, that one of the founders of modern iridology, a Hungarian doctor named von Peczely, first realized the connection of irises with health after studying the eyes of an owl.  As a young boy, he had attempted to catch a wild owl and unfortunately broke one of the owl’s legs.  He captured the injured bird and nursed it back to health.  He noticed that a dark mark soon appeared in the lower part of one of the owl’s irises.  He set the bird’s leg, and as its broken leg healed, the dark mark in its eye disappeared, eventually to be replaced by iris fibres that were whiter and wavier than those in the surrounding area of the iris.  This incident later inspired von Peczely to examine the eyes of other animals, and then humans, and modern iridology was the result.  Modern science ridicules iridology, as it does many fields of naturopathy, saying that it lacks scientific basis and evidence. Well, all I can say is that in my many years of practice, I have seen many iris signs that were uncannily accurate in their representation of physical injuries and problems.

  • Sue:

    We recently had a family of barn owls in ours & the neighbours back yards. I guess they were teaching the two young to hunt. They were only there for two nights, then moved on. I thought I was hearing very loud crickets & went to investigate & there they were!

    • admin:

      Thanks for your lovely story Sue. What a thrill to have some Barn Owls come through your yard!

  • KC:

    I enjoyed this article. Thank you!