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Mackinder's Eagle-Owl by Lorenzo Barelli

Owls, Eagle-Owls, Scops-Owls, Owlets

Nocturnal predators surrounded by mythology and superstition

In old Egypt the owl stood for the letter m. It was the only hieroglyph of a creature facing the reader. They stood for wisdom but were also feared.

In China during the Shang or also knows as Yin dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C.) they were sacred and often depicted on sacrificial vessels, often exaggerated.

In many cultures around the globe these nocturnal birds with the big eyes were/are considered as bad omen and as a symbol of death. But it is also a symbol of transformation, spiritual foretelling, mystical sign a.o.

In old Greek the goddess of battle strategy and wisdom Athene was associated with the Little Owl (Athene noctua) and so was the goddess Minerva in old Rome. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, justice, law, victory and the sponsor of arts.

In the Celtic culture these nocturnal hunters stood for wisdom, protection but also loneliness.

In the middle age the night hunters were associated with witches. The Latin name for witches was Strix and this gave the genus the name which is used up to now.

But what are the facts about owls?

They hunt in forests or open areas and call at night to mark their territory. During daytime they rest well camouflaged near a tree stem or on a branch. Their eyes are in front like in humans and other predators to enable accurate vision for distances = binocular vision. Eyelids, sometime colored can be closed like in humans. They can rotate their roundish head almost 360 degree which enables them to spot prey in all directions.

Their claws are sharp, their talons strong and the beak is sharp pointed to tear to their prey apart and eat bits by bits.

The different species in the family Strigidae are able to localize their prey by hearing. The feathers, ears and brain contribute to this ability and enhance successful hunts at night.

Their flight is silent so prey can’t hear them coming. The feathers are very soft to avoid friction sounds. The Fishing Owl is the exemption, since fish don’t hear sounds coming from up. Frogs do but still they manage to catch them.

Like other birds of prey they regurgitate pellets containing indigestible food like hair, bones and teeth. This enables researches to identify their diet.

They nest in tree holes and the young are taken care off and fed by both parents. Females are larger than males, but there is rarely any difference in colouration.

In the order Strigiformes are over 240 species in 2 families

Barn Owls – Tytonidae which are medium to large in seize, have a heart-shaped face, strong long legs with powerful talons. They also differ from true owls in structural details of sternum and feet (the rear inner toe is the same in length as the middle toe)

The family Strigidae is cosmopolitan in 24 genera with 230 species included those recently extinct

Fishing Owl is a different genus. The flight is not silent and the talons have rough scales to get a firm grip on slippery fish and frogs.

Since different rodents are part of their diet diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey should be protected. Poisoning rodents kills a wide range of predators. 

Paul who lives on the NE slope of the Aberdare is protecting and observing the endangered Mackinder’s Owl. 

He also educates people of the importance of these nocturnal hunters and how useful they are by keeping rodent numbers low.

Several species are endangered. Responsible are loss of habitat, killing because of the misbelieve they are a bad omen and when they eat poisoned rodents.

To give you as actual information as possible we use Avibase, the books “Birds of South of the Sahara”, “Birds of East Africa”, “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania”. Then we put the most characteristic information to the photo.

You can also follow us on Facebook “Bird photography Safaris Kenya” and see the numerous species as well as the beautiful photos from Lorenzo Barelli.

Click on the photo for larger view. The names of the photographers are on the photo and in the text. Without the generosity of several amazing bird photographers it had not been possible to create the pages with so many illustrated bird species. Those photos without name are from Elvira Wolfer.

On our Central to Western Kenya Safari you have the chance to find different species mainly at Lake Baringo!


Western Barn Owl (Tyto alba affinis) occurs in most Africa except in rain forests. I shot the photo early morning at Kichwa Tembo Camp in the Masai Mara

African Grass Owl (Tyto c. capensis) occurs locally in grassland in SW Kenya and NW, Central and SE Tanzania. Photo Per Holmen

Marsh Owl (Asio c. capensis) occurs in marshes and damp grassland in many areas in Africa. Photo Adam Scott Kennedy

Abyssinian Owl / Abyssinian Long-eared Owl / African Long-eared Owl (Asio abyssinicus graueri) is an extremely rare subspecies and found only in giant heath and montane forest in the Ruwenzori Mountains and on Mount Kenya at 3.350 m. The nominate form occurs in highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

African Wood Owl (Strix woodfordii nigricantior) lives in evergreen and riverine forests. This subspecies is found in Kenya, part of Tanzania, Zanzibar. The subspecies nuchalis is found in Uganda, South Sudan, western DRC to Northern Angola. The nominate subspecies  woodfordii is found in SW Tanzania to Botswana. Arabuko Sokoke Forest

Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli) is very rare in Kenya along Tana River. It is more frequent in Southern Tanzania. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, Meru National Park

Verreaux’s (Giant) Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus) is of the ore often met owl species in Africa South of the Sahara in Savanna and riverine forests.

Mackinder’s Eagle-Owl (Bubo capensis) mackinderi) is depending on the other a species or a subspecies of Cape Eagle-Owl. In Kenya it is found at Mount Kenya and NE Aberdare range. Further in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi.

Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo a. africana) is widespread from East to South Africa in different habitats except forests. The subspecies tanae occurs in SE Kenya, along Tana River and Lali Hills.

Greyish Eagle-Owl (Bubo (africana) cinerascens) some consider it a subspecies others a full species. This large owl is found in Meru and Baringo (photo) bis Westafrika.

Usambara Eagle-Owl (Nduk) (Bubo (poensis) vosseleri) is endemic to the Eastern Arc Mountains in Tanzania. Photo Per Holmen, Amani Forest

African Scops-Owl (Otus s. senegalensis) is widespread South of the Sahara in Savanna, dry country and open woodland. Lake Baringo. The subspecies nivosus is found at lower Tana River to Lali Hills.

Eurasian Scops-Owl (Otus s. scops) and rarer 2 subspecies turanicus and pulchella migrate from October to March to Kenya, Somalia to West Africa.

Sokoke Scops-Owl (Otus ireneae) is endemic to Arabuko Sokoke Forest and Usambara Mountains. There is a rufous and a grey-brown morph. Endangered. Photo Lorenzo Barelli and Elvira Wolfer

Pemba Scops-Owl (Otus pembaensis) is endemic to Pemba Island. Vulnerable. Photo Per Holmen

Northern White-faced Scops-Owl (Ptilopsis leucotis) occurs from Central Kenya to West Africa in dry woodland. Best place to find it is at Lake Baringo.

Southern White-faced Scops-Owl (Ptilopsis granti) is found in Acacia Savanna and dry woodland from Southern Kenya to Southern Africa. Photo Roland Ströder, near Arabuko Sokoke Forest

Pearl-spotted Owlet (Glaucidium perlatum diurnum) is the subspecies found from East to Southern Africa in Acacia woodland.

Ngami Owlet (Glaucidium ngamiense) is found in Central Tanzania and further South in forested regions. Photo Per Holmen

Scheffler’s Owlet (Glaucidium (capense) schefferi) occurs in Eastern Kenya, Eastern Somalia and  Eastern Tanzania in forested areas.

Albertine Owlet (Glaucidium altertinum) is not a well recorded species. Can be found in montane forests at the Itombwe Mountains, in forests West of Lake Edward and Northern Rwanda. Endemic. Status vulnerable

Chestnut Owlet (Glaucidium c. castaneum) can be found in SW Uganda and DRC. It was formerly treated as a race of African Barred Owlet. Very rare.

Red-chested Owlet (Glaucidium tephronotum) uncommon in forest understorey. The subspecies medje is found in SW Uganda and DRC, while elgonense around Mount Elgon on the Kenyan and Ugandan side.