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African Grass Owl

Tyto capensis

The African grass owl, Tyto capensis, is a member of the barn owl family, Tytonidae, bearing a striking resemblance to its more widespread cousin. It is adorned with a heart-shaped facial disc of a whitish-cream hue, bordered by a narrow, yellowish-buff rim speckled with dark spots. Its eyes are a deep brownish-black, while its bill ranges from a pale pink to a whitish tone. The plumage on the upperparts is a sooty blackish-brown, interspersed with small white spots and greyish flecks, while the underparts are a lighter whitish to buff, also marked with dark spots. The legs are feathered down to the lower third of the tarsi and are a pale yellowish-grey, with the feet slightly bristled.

Identification Tips

The African grass owl can be identified by its body length of 38–42 cm, a wing length of 283–345 mm, and a weight between 355 and 520 g. Females are notably larger than males, a trait attributed to differences in hunting techniques and brooding efficiency. The primary and secondary feathers are pale brownish-grey with dark bars and yellow bases, and the short tail features brown central feathers that fade to paler, almost white, outer feathers with about four dark bars.

Habitat

This species thrives in moist grasslands and open savannas, reaching elevations up to 3,200 meters. In East Africa, it may also inhabit dry grasslands and higher altitudes, such as the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. In Southern Africa, it shows a preference for marshes and vleis with tall grass and dense vegetation, but can also be found in fynbos, renosterveld, and acacia scrub near water sources.

Distribution

The African grass owl is found in sub-Saharan Africa, with two main range blocks: one in central southern Africa and another centered on South Africa. Isolated populations exist in the Ethiopian Highlands, Kenya, Uganda, and Cameroon.

Behaviour

Nocturnal by nature, the African grass owl roosts in tall grass during the day, creating domed platforms and tunnels. It becomes active post-sunset, hunting throughout the night, and may fly during early morning or late afternoon if prey is scarce. It hunts close to the ground or from a perch, diving to capture prey with its talons.

Song & Calls

The call of the African grass owl is a screeching sound, akin to that of the Barn Owl but less strident. The male's song is a high-pitched sibilant tremolo lasting one to two seconds.

Breeding

Breeding occurs from December to August, peaking between February and April. The nest is a shallow hollow lined with grass at the end of a grass tunnel. The female incubates the two to four white eggs, with the male providing food. Chicks are fed by both parents and begin to explore outside the nest at around five weeks, fledging at seven weeks.

Similar Species

The African grass owl is similar in appearance to the Barn Owl but can be distinguished by its specific habitat preferences and larger size in females.

Diet and Feeding

Its diet primarily consists of rodents and other small mammals, but may also include golden moles, marsh rats, mole-rats, vlei rats, multimammate mice, hedgehogs, elephant shrews, hares, bats, frogs, snipes, and termites. In Cameroon, the diet is heavily composed of Soricomorpha.

Conservation status

The African grass owl is classified as Least Concern globally, but is considered vulnerable in South Africa due to habitat degradation. Conservation efforts include captive breeding and release programs, with the species serving as a bioindicator for environmental contaminants.

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