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Common, Widespread, Inconspicuous… Southern Boobooks

By Keith Hutton on December 14, 2012 in Other

Photo: Paul Svensen (flickr user “Centralian”)

Southern Boobooks are the commonest and most widespread owls in the Sydney region and throughout Australia. Like most owls, they are not active until after dark when they are more often heard than seen. They call frequently and for long periods, particularly in late winter and spring. The most familiar sound is a cheerful, repeated double note that is responsible for the popular alternative name ‘Mopoke’, or ‘Morepork’ as they are called in New Zealand. The call is as characteristic during the night as the chorus of frogs and crickets in the evening, or the maniacal laughing of kookaburras in the morning; it is the nocturnal sound best known throughout the Australian mainland and Tasmania.

Boobooks are the smallest owls in Australia, smaller than Galahs but bigger than Common Mynas. They vary in colour regionally and in the Eastern Suburbs they are brown above with large pale spots on their wings. Underparts are reddish brown with thick brown and white streaks, but the most outstanding features of their appearance are big, round, greenish-yellow eyes and a facial mask with pale margins that suggests large, pale-rimmed goggles bordering a dark patch around each eye. They roost in thick foliage alone, in pairs or sometimes in family groups, and they usually nest in holes.

Any habitat with established trees, including some urban areas, is suitable for Southern Boobooks throughout their range in Australia, New Zealand, PNG, and Indonesia. Forests, woodlands, lightly timbered farming country, orchards, parks, gardens, and leafy street trees, including exotic species, are all suitable.

Small birds and mammals such as mice and bats probably make up most of the diet for boobooks, with occasional geckos and frogs also consumed. Spiders and insects, especially beetles, moths and cockroaches, also appear to be major food items. Boobooks hunt at night preferring clearings, forest edges, or areas around streetlights in urban places. They have even been seen catching mice in Hyde Park. They mainly hunt from perches by pouncing on prey, but also sally for flying insects, hawking through and above the trees. Other prey is either snatched from foliage or caught on the ground.

Owls face many threats in Australia including fire and drought, accidental poisoning following control of rodents, and habitat destruction directly from human activities, or indirectly following establishment of introduced exotic wildlife. The results of the most recent atlas survey of bird species in Australia suggest that Southern Boobooks have declined in numbers nationally over the last 30 years. Nevertheless, they are generally recognised as secure and are by far the commonest owls in Australia. They still occur almost anywhere there are trees, and are the least threatened of all Australian owls. This is probably because they are able to survive on a wide variety of different food items and require only small territories and small hollows for nesting.