Mighty Owls are gentle giants that stalk our suburbs, but they are also borderline | Australian bird of the year 2021

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Ft over the last few months I have looked after a bit uncomfortably over a pair of powerful breeding owls in central Brisbane, a few miles from my home. During this time, they saw crowds of curious onlookers and a determined eviction attempt by Sulfur-crested Cockatoos, to raise a confident and healthy chick, which will remain dependent on them for several more months.

After that, he faces a much bigger challenge: finding and establishing his own territory and partner.

Mighty owls have a lot to offer. They are massive, charismatic birds and a perennial contender for Guardian Australia Bird of the Year. They have proven to be resilient and relatively adaptable. Natural inhabitants of the great eucalyptus forests of south-eastern Australia, they changed their foraging habits and settled in the suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, where pickings – especially tailed possums hyper-abundant ringlets – are easy.

But they are also at the limit. Although they are classified as secure at the federal level, they are listed as Vulnerable in New South Wales and Queensland, and Endangered in Victoria. As top predators, they hold large territories and need tall, ancient trees with trash-sized hollows in order to breed. For this dwindling resource, they compete with other species, including cockatoos and brush-tailed possums, as well as with each other.

While much of their natural habitat has been cleared (or razed to the ground by mega-fires in the black summer of 2020-2021) and once-preferred prey such as large gliders have declined in number, the Mighty owls increasingly depend on the remains of the suburban bush for their survival. In our cities, they face other threats: vehicle strikes, poisonings secondary to rodenticides and excessive human disturbance.

My local pair were particularly public. Between May and August, the male perched daily in a tree above a cycle path. From there, he observed a constant procession of bikes, walkers, and their dogs as his companion brooded and brooded his chick in an adjacent tree. When the chick got too big for her to comfortably share the hollow with him, she joined him by the path, on which they left a visible trail of droppings and vomited up dumplings of indigestible remnants.

Mighty owls increasingly depend on the remains of the suburban bush for their survival. Photography: Dr Nick Hamilton

They have become local celebrities and well used to the human presence. Mighty owls mate for life, and they were a beloved pair: at dusk, they smoothed their faces before they parted to hunt. On one occasion, they were seen enthusiastically copulating, despite having a six-week-old owl. There were loud cries, both owls and a small handful of lucky watchers. New parents could only admire their energy levels.

It was a good indication of how relaxed the birds were – or at least appeared to be. But I remained suspicious, even after the owl finally emerged from its hollow on August 6, a instant social media star. I interviewed Dr Bronwyn Isaac, a lecturer in biological sciences and mighty owl expert at Monash University, about the relationship between mighty owls and humans.

A breeding female she knew in Melbourne had become so annoyed by the constant disturbance from visitors that she began to melt. “I had never, in all the years that I had worked with mighty owls, been stung before,” she says. “I was out of there, because I didn’t want to add that extra stress.” John White, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Deakin University, says mighty owls are “softies, with a little anger management side”.

It’s a polite code to say that you really, really don’t want to be shot by a mighty owl. Usually, you won’t get anything more than a glare. But David Hollands, who first published the photographic volume Birds of the Night in 1991, gives a visceral account of a researcher who was forced to flee under the sustained bombardment of a particularly cranky man. He ended up with a heel injury in one nostril.

How store-bought rodenticides could threaten Australia's mighty owl - video
How store-bought rodenticides could threaten Australia’s mighty owl – video

Fortunately, such encounters are rare. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. If someone cares about something, they’re more likely to take steps to protect it,” says Isaac. “It’s good that people care. ‘them, but we need to limit our impact on the environment they rely on, and also try not to cause these changes in behavior. ”

But the biggest potential problem is the long-term bottleneck in the population of the species. Watching the chick thrive in the care of its parents, I’ve often wondered: where will it go when it’s time to move on? “One of the big gaps in finding powerful owls is that we don’t often know what happens to chicks,” says Isaac. “We don’t know the fate of the chicks, or where they end up.”

And this is where people who love mighty owls can help. If you live in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, you can volunteer for BirdLife Australia’s mighty owl project and report your sightings. And of course you should vote for him in Bird of the Year. He’s the incredible Australian Bird Hulk – a gentle giant with an exhibitionist streak. Don’t make them angry. You won’t like them when they’re angry.


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