30 November 2020

Boobook owls sweep silently through Canberra's suburban nights

| Ian Fraser
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Boobook owl in tree.

A soft body and leading wing feathers render a boobook owl’s flight quite soundless. Northern birds, such as this one, are rusty red. Photo: Ian Fraser.

During most nights this spring, I am being treated to the melodious and thoughtful ‘woop woop’ – with the second note lower than the first – of a boobook owl calling in the informal park over my back fence.

Sometimes he seems quite close, at others he is much further away, towards the shops. It’s been reported that this falsetto call can be heard up to 500m away in suburbia, and twice that outside of town.

He is calling to either attract a female, or because he has already established a territory and mated and is warning off other males. There are not many appropriate nesting hollows for them around here, but there are some old trees by the shops so I’m hopeful for him.

It was a call familiar to the early British settlers in Sydney, although they were somewhat perplexed by it. In 1827, prominent ornithologists Nicholas Vigors and Thomas Horsfield told the eminent Linnean Society in London that George Caley, a botanist working for Sir Joseph Banks in Sydney, had reported its name was buck’buck in the Sydney language.

This was clearly a rendition of its call. They went on to explain, with a certain class bias: “The lower order of the settlers in NSW are led away by the idea that everything is the reverse in that country to what it is in England; and the cuckoo, as they call this bird, singing by night, is one of the instances which they point out.”

The call certainly resembles that of the European cuckoo, although no Australian cuckoo has a call anything like it. However, it’s not at all clear that it was only the ‘lower order’ of settlers who thought that way.

Boobook owl sitting on branch.

Big staring eyes and powerful clawed feet are typical of boobook owls which are small but formidable hunters. They hide in foliage by day as other birds harass them unmercifully. Photo: Ian Fraser.

There is another widespread confusion surrounding the call. It is often interpreted as ‘mo-poke’ – and ‘mopoke’ is used as an alternative name.

Unfortunately, this is a name also applied to the tawny frogmouth, although that’s in error as the tawny is not an owl and doesn’t say anything like this. There are regular arguments arising from this mix-up (but only among humans – the birds don’t care).

The boobook is the smallest Australian owl and by far the most common. It is found throughout the continent and in all habitats, following watercourses into the deserts and adapting well to town life wherever some trees remain.

They are formidable little hunters, with a wide variety of small prey taken, including insects, spiders, bats, mice and small birds. They sometimes hang around street lights to pounce on moths and bats. However, they can also take much larger animals than we might expect, including rabbits, ringtail possums and rosellas, which they pounce on while the rosella is asleep on a branch.

Unlike most birds, owls have eyes at the front of their head – like us – which gives them excellent binocular vision. I suspect this has contributed to the idea of owls being ‘wise’ (ie, like us!)

In addition, they have large eyes to maximise light gathering. In fact, they are so large there is no room in their skull for muscles to move them so, instead, they swivel their heads 180 degrees to see behind them.

Their real superpowers lie in their remarkable hearing. Researchers found that an owl can swoop onto a mouse in a totally darkened room, using only the faint sounds of its movement for guidance. Moreover, the owl has soft body feathers, as well as the leading feathers on the wing, so its flight is totally silent.

The female boobook does all the brooding of eggs and chicks in the upright tree hollow nest, while the male brings her food to bite into small enough pieces for the chicks to manage. These chicks will spend five to six weeks in the nest before emerging, after which they stay with their parents for up to four months before setting out to make their own way in the world.

In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy the nighttime song of the boobook owl and be glad they’re out there.

Ian Fraser is a Canberra naturalist, conservationist and author. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT Government on biodiversity, and published multiple guides to the region’s flora and fauna.

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Thanks for this article, I enjoyed it. The call of the Boobook surprised me when I came to Canberra because it seems to be identical to the NZ “Morepork”. If fact the two birds are so genetically similar they were only differentiated in recent times.

I haven’t heard or seen one of these for a while. There used to be one that would sometimes sit on the power lines behind our house. I was really hoping for a powerful owl to come along and take care of the possums.

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