Australian Owl Genetics Project

Museum Victoria is continuing its exciting project to learn more about owls through studying their DNA. The project, sponsored by Australian Geographic, will provide valuable information for the conservation of owls and their habitats, as well as insights into the origin and evolution of Australia’s owls.

Mount of a Masked Owl, Tyto novaebollandie

Mount of a Masked Owl, Tyto novaebollandie
Photographer: Benjamin Healley. Source: Museum Victoria

Australia’s Owls

Australia has nine species of owl. They fall into two genera, Ninox (hawk-owls and boobooks) and Tyto (barn owls and masked owls). The four species of Ninox (Rufous Owl, Powerful Owl, Barking Owl and Southern Boobook) all have large, yellow eyes and a hawk-like face. The five species of Tyto (Masked Owl, Sooty Owl, Lesser Sooty Owl, Grass Owl and Barn Owl) all have a heart-shaped facial disc. Some species, like the Boobook and Barn Owl, are widely distributed across Australia, while others, like the Lesser Sooty Owl, have a restricted distribution. Australia’s owls are more often heard than seen.

The Australian Owl Genetics Project

The survival of Australia’s owls is threatened by land clearing and fragmentation of their forest habitats. Unfortunately, conservation efforts are hampered by a lack of basic knowledge about the biology and ecology of owls – studying an animal that is only active at night is extremely difficult!

To improve our knowledge of Australian owls, and assist conservation efforts, Museum Victoria scientists are studying the DNA of owls. The project will help to assess the impact of deforestation on owl populations, to determine if owl populations are at risk from inbreeding, and to establish any patterns of movement of owls within and between forest fragments.

The project will also examine the relationships between Australian owls and owls from other parts of the world so we can discover more about how they have evolved.

A Museum Victoria DNA laboratory scientist preparing Hawk Owls

One of Museum Victoria’s DNA laboratory scientists preparing Hawk Owls.
Photographer: Michelle FcFarlane. Source: Museum Victoria

Want to know more about owls?

For more information on Australia’s owls, see the July 2003 edition of Australian Geographic magazine.

The Discovery Centre at Melbourne Museum has a variety of resources for additional information on Australian Owls. The Discovery Centre can be reached by telephone on (03) 8341 7111, or via email on discoverycentre@museum.vic.gov.au. You can also access Discovery Centre resources via the website www.museum.vic.gov.au/discoverycentre.

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua
Photographer & Source: Ted Shimba

Further Reading

Hollands, D. 1991 Birds of the Night: owls, frogmouths and nightjars of Australia. Reed Books, Balgowlah, NSW.

‘Wings of Silence’ by John Young (video). 55mins. Bird Observers Club of Australia.

Comments (47)

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Peter Read 23 June, 2010 19:36
I have sighted a large nocturnal bird, possibly two, flying over my street just after dusk. Particularly flying around on moonlight nights. Difficult to distinguish because it flies over trees above a street lamp. However, when I shielded my eyes tonight I got a fair sighting of a bird considerably larger than a raven with very wide wing span, and long wedge shaped body. Appeared to be light brown. Definitely NOT a bat. Different wing shape, different sound, different movements. I'm not an experienced bird watcher, just seen it/them several times unexpectedly. Any idea what it might be? I live opposite the old Kodak site in Coburg close to open land and Edgars Creek.
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Malcolm Mathias 4 July, 2010 20:53
I think our Sooty Owls are back. I saw him originally a couple of years ago at close quarters on top of our mail box. Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of loud possum activity on our roof, and we have seen both ringtail and bushy possums. Two nights ago I saw a large owl take off from one of our trees, but not close enough for good identification. However, we have been puzzled by a chirping haspish sound for many nights. Tonight I found the sound of juvenile sooty owls on the web, and the web sound is identical to the sound we are hearing at night. I believe we have a Sooty Owl nest in relatively close proximity to our home, and the noise we are hearing is the juvenile Sooty Owl. The male is probably hunting ringtail possums at night to take home to the nest. I had a blood spattered car in my driveway this morning, probably from last nights kill. I believe we have a nest of Sooty Owls alive and well in Forest Hill, but the possums are taking a beating. Regards, Malcolm Mathias
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Rachel Morgan 8 July, 2010 16:33
I have an owl that visits my backyard at night. Its big and brown/white. I took photos last night.
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G. De Cressac 12 August, 2010 14:50
This morning a powerful owl was lying dead in the middle of a junction at Berowra Heights, NSW. Trees at a distance of approx. 20-30m away but o/head cables directly above the bird. So sad!
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P.Kinley 25 September, 2010 04:22
Hi folks saw this owl for the first time about 3 months ago and again 25/9/2010 in my back yard on top of the close line. Run inside got my torch and got as close as 1 and a half metres it took off briefly and came back perched again munching on something. It was grayish in colour and bigger than a crow and to Peter Read i live on the boarder of Coburg and Reservoir. Might be the same bird sited at 4.00 am in the morning having a cig outside.
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Geoff Green 19 October, 2010 14:53
Over the past 4 to 5 months we have seen on our front lawn here in Balwyn, the remains (not much left, only what appears to be a small part of the gut including full bowels, and some deposits of fur,) of what we are sure 'have been' three possums. Although an amimal lover I am on the side of what I presume are a species of owls as the possums have had more than their fair share of our roses, ornamental grape vines and a vaiety of other plantings.
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robin 29 October, 2010 10:10
We had an owl sitting on our power lines in East Hawthorn a few weeks ago. There for a few nights then disappeared. Then we started hearing noises which I tracked to a large tree in the street. They sound mechanical ( we originally thought it was an air-conditioner on a neighbour's house) and highly regulated (about 10 calls then stops, then re-starts soon after). Is it likely to be an owl?
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Discovery Centre 1 November, 2010 14:06
Hello Robin - There's not quite enough information there for our bird expert to go on. If you are able to give a physical description, photograph the bird itself if you see it again, or perhaps record the call, do submit the information or upload your files to our Ask the Experts enquiry service, and we'll do our best to get you an identification!
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V Harrington 19 November, 2010 13:45
Ihave currently have a very big owl under a chir on the sideof a water dish in my back garden, appears to be okay, I am waiting for WIRES to come.
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Donna 31 December, 2010 21:23
I have just noticed a very small dark colored owl in a bird box in my gum tree. I am in Central Victoria. This bird makes a whistle noise that goes high then low but slower. Its quite loud, I cant seem to get a pic as he seems to hide when i have the camera. He has big eyes that when blinked show a milky lens type film. Any ideas? He is very small....
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Renee 7 May, 2011 21:24
i live in Carr St Coburg and right near Coburg lake & I just spotted an owl out the front on the wires next to a street lamp! I was very excited!! I've never seen an owl in the wild. At first I thought it was a possum but I stood right near it and it was definitely an owl, not sure what type though
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Margaret 24 May, 2011 12:45
Saw a huge owl in my back yard last night in West Heidelberg. It looked a grey colour and probably twice the size of a kookaburra. We also have possums around so that could be the attraction. We also have a park nearby
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D Brown 11 June, 2011 12:55
We found a large dead owl on the footpath outside our gate in Malvern East this morning - so sad...he doesn't seem to have visible injuries and assume he was electrocuted on the overhead power lines. Owls are amazing birds, so beautiful.
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Linda Nathan 17 August, 2011 00:19
Oh my god I just sighted an owl a big white one being harrased by 2 crows. This beautiful owl looked young & maybe escaped from its owner as this bird seemed lost. I opened my front door & the owl was frighten off as it flew off from my front veranda the 2 black birds chased it away where ever the owl the 2 crows stalked the owl. It was a sight to see. The owl was huge & white possibly the most beautiful bird Ive ever laid eyes on.
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Colin 1 September, 2011 09:09
That is so crazy, I have just seen the exact same thing as Linda, in Richmond Melbourne. It was a large white owl being chased by two crows. It was amazing looking.
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peter 7 September, 2011 22:24
It is now 10pm and i walked out the back of my house to have a smoke (yea i know its bad). looked over onto the ol hills hoyst to see a grey shadow on the top of one of the arms. for some reson i thought it was a bag but quickly realised bags don't sit that way. relising it was an owl i ran grabed my camera. not sure what it was but i would love to find out. [IMG]http://i7.photobucket.com/albums/y260/sqwashy/316490_2315241730817_1542679625_32449160_2073587140_n.jpg[/IMG] if this photo did not work here is the link to it http://i7.photobucket.com/albums/y260/sqwashy/316490_2315241730817_1542679625_32449160_2073587140_n.jpg thanks guys
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Discovery Centre 9 September, 2011 13:56

Hi Peter,

The ‘owl’ is a Tawny Frogmouth which is common in some suburbs with lashings of trees.  They often use the Hills Hoist as a perch while watching for insect/mouse prey as these cross the lawns through lights from windows.

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Rose 23 September, 2011 20:48
21.09.2011 I saw large White owl flew out of tree beside me at 2.30pm it was just beautiful second one i have seen in 23 years that was near Geelong it was about two feet away,do owls have a special reason as i have had a death in the family very recently is there any connection.
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Jess 12 October, 2011 03:52
I'm a wildlife rehabber, and just thought I'd add a few comments for those interested in the welfare of these beautiful creatures. It is not uncommon in the spring particularly, to see an owl being harassed by ravens or magpies. But bear in mind, these are nocturnal creatures, so if they are out during the day, that usually signifies something is wrong. If an owl is being chased but is flying and seems uninjured, it may be just a young bird who has roosted in a magpie's territory, and has been rudely awoken once found by the angry tennant in daylight. These guys will look dazed and confused, because they are - it's too bright for them and they just woke up! If an owl is sitting on the ground however - with or without birds attacking it - then it is probably concussed. It's a common injury for these guys, because they fly very fast through bushland in the dark, so occasionally they crash into something. They have a great prospect of recovery if they don't get killed by something first, so call your local wildlife group if you spot one. I have a masked owl with a concussion sleeping in my bedroom. It's cool to see so many people taking interest in them. They are beautiful creatures. :)
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Discovery Centre 12 October, 2011 11:06
WOW!  Thanks Jess.
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Beryl 28 December, 2011 23:24
I have been hearing a sound similar to snoring and had an owl sitting on the fence. It has been around for about 2 weeks. I came home late tonight and went out to see the owl and there are 4, 2 of which seem to be a bit smaller. I live in Heidelberg West.
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sharrie 7 February, 2012 19:16
I am trying to identify an Owl that has visited behind us and in our yard on 4 occasions. I live by the sea in Corinella and originally the Owl woke me up by its call. It is a very deep low melodramatic continual whoo hoo sound. It goes on and on and woke me. I was originally irritated by it and wandered the yard at 2am in the morning trying to find out what it was. As each time it has been night I have not seen him completely though one night I got a fair look and he appears to be brown to grey in color. I have hunted the web for Ow sounds but have not yet come across it. I am concerned as the land behind us has submitted a planning application and all our beautiful parrots that return to nest along with other birds and our Owl will be homeless. I have 7 days to put together an objection.
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Discovery Centre 9 February, 2012 11:38

Hi Sharrie, from your description our collection manager was only able to provide the following information; colours brown to grey (=Southern Boobook Owl to Tawny Frogmouth); call whoo hoo (= ‘boo-book’ [repeated] of boobook owl to oom-oom… [continuous] of frogmouth).  I suspect it is the latter [frogmouth] but a recording of the call would be good to definitely identify it. Otherwise the museum does have an app with some bird calls or the Museum has some CD's that we can make available for you to listen to in the Discovery Centre.

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Heff 13 February, 2012 21:19
A few days ago, we had a large owl in our backyard. Today, I found your website, and the third photo confirms it was a powerful owl. Unfortunately, it was being mobbed by peewees, and didn't hang around long enough for me or my Wife to get the camera. We live in Cessnock, NSW. I've never seen an owl in Australia before now.
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Kerry 15 April, 2012 01:27
I was just sitting on my verandah at midnight when a beautiful owl landed on my daughters netball ring and perched for about 10 minutes. It was quite large and was not a tawny frogmouth as i have seen a tawny perch there a few months ago! This owl was large (much bigger than a crow) with a lighter coloured face and was only a couple of meters away from me. We sat and stared at each other for quite a while before it swooped and grabbed a small animal - I think it was a lizard from the ground then flew to a nearby gum tree. It's wing span was huge! I heard it make a sort of screechy whistle sound as it flew into the tree. Just wondering what sort of owl this could be?
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norma 16 June, 2012 22:07
I live in glenmore park NSW have lived here for 10years and for the last 5 this owl visits us several times a week...we used to think he was after our rabbit..but the rabbit died over a year ago and stil he perches on our clothes line..we think he is beautiful but wonder why he is there as its quite suburbian
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Discovery Centre 18 June, 2012 12:00
Hi Norma, without an image it is too hard to say, it may be a Barn Owl or Boobook Owl  but it may be that the owl is actually a Tawny Frogmouth.   

 

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Martha Matthews 8 August, 2012 13:35
I'm in NSW (close to Centiennial Park of Sydney). See a young barn owl in my Kaffir Plum tree being dive-bombed by 2 Magpies and a few Minah birds. It is the middle of day. Haven't ever seen an owl around. But I do toss out old fruit and veg for the possums at night. Could he be attracted by that? Why is he out in the day? Should I do anything?
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sandy 10 August, 2012 16:22
We live on a property near Meningie in the Lower Lakes region of SA. For several months now we have sighted two white owls - from your photo here, masked owls. Amazing, beautiful birds. Unfortunately a couple weeks ago, found one dead - no visible signs of injury. Now, today, have sadly found the second one dead on the ground, once again no visible injuries. It upsets us to see these poor things and have no idea how they would have died. Do they live in pairs, do they pair for life? How common are they? And have you any idea how they may have died?
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Discovery Centre 20 August, 2012 15:18

 

Hi Sandy

According to the information in a conservation report prepared by the Department of Environment and Conservation NSW, “The Masked Owl lives as monogamous, sedentary life-long pairs in large permanent home ranges”. According to the Australian Museum website, the masked owl lives in a coastal strip that stretches from NSW to South Australia, which at most is 300km from the coast. At the moment, this species of owl is considered to be vulnerable.We cannot ascertain how these creatures would have died.

Discovery Centre 19 August, 2012 10:13
Hi Martha, While generally nocturnal, Barn Owls can be active at dawn, dusk and occasionally during the day. They hunt small rodents such as mice, lizards and insects, all of which may be attracted by the remnants of the fruit and vegetables you put out for the possums. Magpies are very territorial, and both Magpies and Mynas will aggressively repel other birds. This may be the reason for the behaviour you have observed.
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Jenny Coco 19 August, 2012 11:16
I just had a brown & white owl fly into my head whilst I was hanging the washing at 11am. There were noisy minars screeching so I think they were scaring it off. It then sat quietly for 5 minutes on the laundry doorstep and we took photos before it flew away. It had big yellow eyes and was reasonably large.
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Discovery Centre 19 August, 2012 11:21

Hi Jenny, Museum Victoria has a free Identification Service. If you send us the photos you took of the owl, we'd be happy to identify it for you. (Hope your head is ok - and that the owl is too!).

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MFriend 9 September, 2012 19:06
This morning I found a dead owl under one of the old gum trees on our property. It looks like a barn owl. One wing was extended and the other closed. it had the most incredibly fine brilliant white floaty feathers on the breast with little speckles. There are many different kinds of birds that inhabit that old tree including wood ducks, gallahs, plus bigs possums. We also have many magpies around. I wonder what happened to it. It was a lovely creature.
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outdoor-sleeper 29 December, 2012 22:11
big,silent and beautiful powerful owl in west heidelberg.perching on the clothesline also
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Paul McManus 4 February, 2013 00:19
Just saw two owl like birds flying up and down my street. I live across the road from the lane cove national park in penant hills, nsw. They both had very loud high pitched whistling calls, and a large wingspan, that appeared white underneath. Any ideas what they might be?
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Owl lover 23 March, 2013 23:32
Have just moved to malvern east & could not work out what the noise was at night...like robin I thought it was the neighbours air con. But have discovered it is an owl. There seems to be 2 owls one which is quite large. They appear to be browney grey with white flecks. Are they a tawny frog mouth? And how do I keep them coming around?
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Discovery Centre 26 March, 2013 16:37

Hi Owl Lover,

This appears to be a Tawny Frogmouth, their calls can be readily distinguished from the Boobook. A softly repeated ‘Oom, oom, oom’ versus the Boobook’s ‘more-pork, more-pork’.

 As for keeping them in an area, this can be difficult, if not impossible. If there are mature trees then there is every likelihood of them staying in the area, although they will move around after food.

Andrew 30 April, 2013 01:07
We have many owls of various types on out property at red hill. We see them frequently, hear them hourly, every night and have even heard calls that sound like screams flying over the house. Gave us quite a startle the first time. But if you are looking for owls, we've got them. In the forrest near the creek at the bottom of shands road, main ridge at the shoreham rd end. I'm pretty sure we have multiple breeds, certainly the boobook and powerful owl from some of the sound recordings I've heard online. They make two distictive hooting noises. Not sure which makes the screeching/scream noises.
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Mike 2 July, 2013 22:59
Saw what appeared to be a powerful owl in our backyard in north ringwood tonight. Wingspan looked to be well over a metre with chevron type colouring. What an amazing bird. Any guidance on whether it or my cat are a danger to each other?
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Discovery Centre 3 July, 2013 10:53
Hi Mike - with a wingspan of that magnitude and with the plumage you described it is almost certainly a Powerful Owl. I've not found reference to these owls being a threat to cats, but as a precaution it might be best to think of ways of discouraging your cat from climbing trees at night if this is a habit your cat has, Powerfuls appear to prefer arboreal (tree-dwelling) mammals such as possums and gliders as well as nocturnal birds, rather than terrestrial animals. Whilst your cat may pose a threat to a nest or fledgling Powerfuls, I would imagine it might have the good sense to leave an adult Powerful Owl well enough alone!
darren 11 July, 2013 10:06
I live in port noarlunga south Australia ,I have pet rabbits ,I saw a owl swoop down at dusk and nearly take 1 of the rabbits, do owls hunt at day time or night time thankyou
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Discovery Centre 20 July, 2013 13:45

Hi Darren,

Owls are generally nocturnal hunters. They have acute hearing that is enhanced by a facial feather ruff and the structure of their feathers enables them to fly silently. These features enable them to locate prey accurately. Owls can have a hunting territory and so become familiar with possible prey within that territory. 

Robyn 29 August, 2013 22:04
I'm in Wattle Glen & have often seen owls in the night sky around here but in the last few weeks I've sighted what I'm sure is a Powerful Owl. It seems to sit in a gum tree in our back yard and flys off when I go out with my 2 dogs & returns to repeat this game. The power & thump of its wings when flying over is amazing unlike other owls which are quiet flyers. Not sure where it is nesting thou there are a lot of large gums nearby. Wondering what its range would be? Thanks Robyn
Discovery Centre 1 October, 2013 15:45

Hi Robyn,

According to an article published in EMU Astral Ornithology, the range for the Powerful Owl is 5.7 to 8.9 km. The Australian Department of Sustainability and Environment states an estimated home-range size of 400 to 3000 hectares, depending upon habitat.

 

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Anna 6 October, 2013 16:23
My partner and I saw not one, but two beautiful owls on our walk home last night. One was on the fence on Scotch College, Hawthorn and the other, smaller one was perched on the electric wire about 2m away. We watched them for a few minutes and the larger owl flew around in circles a couple of times. What an incredible sight!
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kit 27 October, 2013 19:28
Heard noise outside my bedroom window last night. Thought it might be possum so went outside to take a look. Not 3 metres from me purched on my powerline was the biggest pure white owl. It was big and surprised that its head was almost as big as its body. Thought white owls rare to this area. We just stared at each other for awhile. Awesome but also creepy.
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