Colours of Wildlife: African Scops Owl

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

I present to you yet another owl today, this time a little African Scops Owl, Otus senegalensis. This is a watercolour painting, and one of my favourites. Here you see it in a typical rest attitude, perched right against the grey bark of a tree which its feathers almost exactly match. This one is still relaxed as you can see by its open eyes and 'slumped' pose … because if it realizes there's something or someone potentially dangerous that might spot it, it will close its eyes – leaving only slits to look through – stretch its whole body upwards while also raising its ear tufts, and press itself tight against the bark. This maneuver makes it almost invisible unless you were already looking at it.

I've already featured a number of owls here, and wrote most extensively about them as a group in my entry on the Spotted Eagle Owl. So I will not again mention all the features of owls but rather speak of scops owls specifically.

Americans might not have heard of scops owls (even Europeans might be unfamiliar with the term although there is an Eurasian species) so briefly: scops owls are small to very small owls, but resembling the much larger eagle owls in having prominent ear tufts. They occur in Africa, Europe, Asia as far northeast as Japan, and the islands off southeast Asia. 'Otus' constitutes the largest genus in the owl family, with over forty species recognized so far, and new species are still being discovered. But they look very much alike. Many species come in two colour schemes: a grey one, and a reddish brown or rufous one. Presumably the grey ones will perch in grey–barked trees and the rufous ones in trees with brownish to reddish brown bark. It is a strange thing that the grey versions of the various species will look more similar to each other than to the rufous versions belonging to the same species.

The superficial similarity of scops owls hides huge genetic diversity. Scops owls appear to be specialists in colonizing small, isolated habitats, and then evolving into new species there. There are species that only occur in small, isolated patches of forests, or on small islands, sometimes very distant from the nearest continent from which the owls originally must have come, such as the Seychelles. The majority of the species are island dwellers. At least one such species, the Madeiran Scops Owl, Otus mauli has become extinct due to human disturbance of the fragile island ecosystem. Unknown species might still be hiding on insufficiently explored islands or in isolated continental mountain forests. The African Scops Owl, though, occurs over most of sub–Saharan Africa. The Eurasian Scops Owl is also very widely distributed.

In North America, the counterparts of the scops owls are the Screech Owls, genus Megascops. They are very similar to scops owls in appearance, and have also diversified into a large number of species, over twenty being known. The New World screech owls do seem to be related to the Old World scops owls, and may share an ancestry going back to 5 million years or more.

There are also other small owls that are close relatives of scops and screech owls, such as the very pretty white–faced owls of Africa, and a few American species and perhaps one species from the Palau islands.

The African Scops Owl is a species I have encountered a few times. The easiest way to see it is when it is calling at night. Its call is very un–owl–like: it is a mellow chirrup, somewhat insect or frog–like, repeated at intervals of about five seconds and continuing for a long time. If you hear it, you only need to pinpoint its direction and then sneak up on the owl. If you have a flashlight handy you can then shine it onto the owl as it calls; it doesn't seem very discomfited by that. This is how I managed to see my first one, in the Kruger National Park, in one of the camps. . . it might have been Letaba, or Olifants, I forget which. After we had found it, much of the camp subsequently gathered under the tree, all admiring the little owl as we were shining flashlights onto it.

As I've said, it is a small owl: 15–20 cm (6"–8") in length, with a body about the size of that of a thrush. Like most of the birds and mammals I've illustrated so far, it occurs in savannah or dry woodland, avoiding dense forests as well as deserts or treeless grassland. Small as it is, this owl catches small prey as well, mostly insects. Sometimes they will perch close to or on an outside light in the evening or night, catching moths and other insects that it attracts. It sometimes catches scorpions on the ground. Only rarely does it catch small birds, mice, or lizards. It seems to breed in vertical (open at the top) cavities in trees, laying two to four eggs. The chicks probably hatch at intervals rather than all at once, so a typical nest would have babies of different ages. The male brings food for the female while she incubates and also later while she broods the chicks. Not much is known otherwise of the breeding or general habits of this owl.

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