Owls of Kenya
Kenya is home to 18 owl species
In Kenya, we are blessed with a staggering diversity of Owls – 18 species in total. Most are hard to find and extremely restricted in range – like the Eurasian Scops Owl that’s silent in the region, or the Sokoke Scops Owl that only occurs in forest patches along the coast. Long Eared Owls haven’t been recorded in recent memory, nor have Red-Chested Owlets. Others, like Spotted Eagle Owls and Pearl Spotted Owlets seem to be spilling out of every other tree!
Pictured here is a wild Eurasian Scops Owl, seen at the Naivasha Raptor Centre – there are only a handful of Kenyan records of this very small owl.
He’s a little run-down of some of the owls we have at our Centres.
Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is one of Africa’s largest owls. It is very powerful and while its favourite prey may be the larger scarab beetles, zorillas, and hedgehogs; on occasion, it has been known to kill full grown Vervet monkeys in broad day-light, Secretary Birds on their nests and a female Martial Eagle. We knew of one individual that killed but did not eat some 5 Steppe Buzzards.
Verreaux’s Eagle owls can live in rural, transitional and human populated areas unseen and overlooked in nests of other raptors or on the top of Hammerkop nests, as they do not build their own They can nest in low river drainage lines or in clumps of dense, isolated thickets.
They may be occasionally seen in pairs in the shade of a tall tree, the male much smaller than the female. Their deep grunting reverberates for kilometers. The dependent chick has a high pitched shrill squeak that can continue day and night until it is fed. Unusual for many owls, their young stay with the parents for up to 18 months or more. The young appear to be hopelessly dependent upon their parents and retain a fuzzy round juvenile head longer than most owls.
Our centres receive a large number of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls and the chief reason is, as with all owls, their premature departure from the nest. All owls leave the nest before they can fly to escape what is a very messy nest. We advise those that find young owls on the ground to put them high up in the nearest tree or shaded roof and never “rescue” them.
Fallen Verreaux’s Eagle Owl chicks, however, tend to be injured by people, many of whom still fear them for superstitious reasons. These we try to rehabilitate for release but they are not easy, given their very long dependency on their parents taking years of careful fostering with adults and needing a very long soft release.
One of our education stars is Phil, a year-old Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. As is often the case, he fell out of his nest, but broke his wing on the way down, so there was no way to put him back. As he was small and still developing, his wing had to be restrapped every other day, and he had to be hand fed – the result being that he became an ‘imprint’; socially attached to humans. He cannot be released back into the wild because of this, but will instead have the capacity to educate and influence thousands upon thousands of young Kenyans on the importance of owl conservation over the course of his 25-30 year lifespan. You can meet Phil at Naivasha Raptor Centre and hold him on a glove and get your picture taken with him!
Mackinder’s Eagle Owl
We occasionally receive the more robust, tough and very powerful Mackinder’s Eagle Owl, also known as the Cape Eagle-owl, that is certainly a glacial left behind, abandoned on Africa’s eastern Afro-Alpine mountain tops. This refers to the last big Ice Age - when glaciers and snow still covered most of Eurasia and almost all African highlands above 10,000 feet. 12000 to 8000 years since the last Ice Age, these isolated Afro-Alpine islands still hold a few Eurasian type animals and plants, and the Mackinder’s Eagle Owl (and the Abyssinian Long Eared Owl) is among them.
It is very similar in every respect the huge Eurasian Eagle Owls and like them it is particularly fond of hares and larger moorland rodents, as well as Rock Hyrax. Again, these too are heavily persecuted for the fact that many nests are near to or on the ground in rocky and relatively accessible areas. The adults can defend their eggs and young from small and large carnivores, but not from a determined person.
Unlike the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, the Mackinder’s young mature quicker and leave parental care sooner and so are easier to return to the wild. We have an adult Mackinder’s at the Naivasha Raptor Centre, half blind after and attack from a territorial competitor; as they are a very rare species it may be many years until we get her a mate.
Portraited here is our Mackinder’s Eagle Owl at The Naivasha Raptor Centre.
Spotted Eagle Owl
The Spotted Eagle Owl is a bit of a misnomer as the term “eagle” implies it is eagle sized. It is much smaller though it is closely related to its larger brethren. It remains fairly common though certainly in decline, nesting in eroded gullies, small cliff faces, rocky terrain on the ground hidden in a small recess, sometimes in dense thickets even in urban gardens, or on window sills (flowered window sills appear to be a favourite site in South African urban gardens). Like all owls they too jump out of the nest well before they can fly and despite our pleas to the public to return them we do still get a fair number.
Our Spotted Eagle Owls breed easily in captivity and the young are slowly hacked out or trained and then soft released. Two birds recently starred in a wildlife documentary filmed at night under moonlight using light enhancing cameras at Soysambu! Both were captive bred at the Naivasha Raptor Centre, and both behaved perfectly flying free in front of the cameras with wild owls and leopards all around catching spiders inches away from the lens.
Again, the new concrete electricity poles are rapidly becoming the major source of mortality for these and all other medium to large sized owls, as well as perch hunting diurnal raptors like Augur Buzzards and Long-Crested Eagles.
Pictured here is a captive-bred Spotted Eagle Owl at the Naivasha Raptor Centre. This bird was ringed and released two years before, but came back and established a territory very close to home.
The Barn Owl enclosure is home to three permanent captives; two females with badly broken wings, and a half blind male. Despite this they breed profusely and have certainly added far more young to the wild than most free living wild owls.
Barn Owls, on occasion nest in people’s roofs and because they are feared locally we get called out to “rescue” chicks many times. This places us in a predicament because the owls are very beneficial; they eat 2 to 3 mice each per day, and of course are perfectly harmless and not possessed by the devil.
The growing superstition around Barn Owls is serious indeed with churches openly calling for their destruction. The “developed” world harbours no such aggressive superstition although the Barn Owl, with its rasping call, does put the hair up the back of most of us when walking alone at night in a graveyard. For its habit of floating about quietly and suddenly making a rasping call it has never been actively persecuted and remains fondly admired in most of the world…except in our region.
Fortunately, we have been able to persuade many of those who wish us to remove the owls to keep them. We have outreach programs that occasionally have succeeded in having people put up Barn Owl boxes.
And as these individuals remain unharmed and mice free, in time we hope this to become a common feature as in Europe or the USA, where people make thousands of owl boxes. We do supply owl box designs for you to make at home upon request.
Pictured here is a captive-bred (notice the ring) Barn Owl at the Naivasha Raptor Centre – this bird hung around for a couple of weeks before dispersing.
The small Wood Owl is a much more delicate bird with tiny feet barely capable of catch mice. It does do so but insects and scarab beetles make up a large portion of their diet.
These owls have a melodious and quite easily mimicked call. Dense thickets, especially near stream beds, are their favourite places to nest and roost. They can be found in well wooded gardens in the middle of towns, quietly going about their own business.
We occasionally get chicks despite our pleas for people to leave them alone or gently put them up in their nest tree. These are old wood cavity nesters and like all owls, clamber about long before they can fly. Their parents will find them wherever they go so the best action is just to make sure the chicks don’t get killed by people, cats or dogs.
Pictured one of our permanent resident Wood Owls, enjoying mouse day.
What to do when you find an owl chick
If you find an uninjured young owl on the ground, please put it high up in the nearest tree or shaded roof. All owls leave the nest before they can fly so it does not need rescuing. The chicks parents will find it and take good care of it. Do make sure it is safe from cats, dogs and people.
If you find an injured chick, a rescue is called for and you can bring it to one of our rescue and rehabilitation centres.
Kenya's Owl species
African Barred Owlet
Sokoke Scops Owl
Mtiti wa Sokoke
Mtiti wa Afrika
Mtiti wa Ulaya
Northern White-faced Owl
Southern White-faced Owl
Mtiti Uso-mweupe Kaskazi
Mtiti Uso-mweupe Kusi
African Long-eared Owl
Mackinder’s (or Cape) Eagle Owl
Kungwi wa Mackinder