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 novaebollandiePhotographer: Benjamin Healley. Source: Museum Victoria
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 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.
One of Museum Victoria’s DNA laboratory scientists preparing Hawk Owls. Photographer: Michelle FcFarlane. Source: Museum Victoria
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also access Discovery Centre resources via the website www.museum.vic.gov.au/discoverycentre.
Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua Photographer & Source: Ted Shimba
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
The Southern Boobook (Ninox boobook) is the most common owl species in Australia, and is also common around Melbourne. They are very reluctant to move about during daylight hours, but being a predatory bird they are sometimes discovered and mobbed by other birds, particularly ravens. The cryptic colours hide Boobooks well, but when an owl’s cover is broken it needs to leave its hiding place and find somewhere safe. That’s the most probable reason the owl ended up on your front porch and why it was reluctant to move away again until dark.
Masked Owls (Tyto novaehollandiae) feed on small mammals such as possums, rabbits, bandicoots, rats and mice, as well as birds, reptiles and insects. They are attracted only by living and moving prey, so the best way to keep the owl living locally is to provide it with a habitat in which the owl feels secure and food is abundant. Masked Owls require tall trees for roosting and open areas for foraging, in addition to hollows for nesting (nesting boxes can be provided artificially). They are territorial so if a pair of owls like your habitat, there’s a good chance they’ll stay. The best way to do this is by planting plenty of native plant species in your garden, particularly those that attract insects and birds.
Hi Sami - Our bird experts have had a look at your enquiry, and tell us that Australia’s largest owl is the Powerful Owl. They can get to be pretty big with a wingspan of about 135cm (although not quite the width of two cars). They are generally grey/brown/white so it would likely be difficult to determine colour of the bird at night. They are known to occur in urban areas, especially around Sydney. They don’t generally take prey from the ground but it wouldn’t be completely out of the question – but based on everything else, their best guess would be a Powerful Owl.
We love receiving comments, but can’t always respond.
My parents travelled from Sydney on a holiday on the RMS Orcades leaving on 28 Jan 1950. They travelled Tourist Class and ended up in Greece but am unsure where...
To read the latest tweets from @museumvictoria
Follow Museum Victoria on
I have one as well, what have you found out about this item?