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World Owl Trust - leading the World in Owl Conservation
Saturday 20th December, 2014

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Owl Taxonomy

Owl song is playing an increasingly important role in owl classification or taxonomy.

The plumage of any one species can be highly variable and is often confused by the presence of two colour morphs. This is normally, a red or grey (gray) version, and both forms can occur side by side even within the same clutch of offspring. Conversely two separate species can have remarkably similar plumage. Plumage is of little importance when trying to find a mate of the same species in the dark, and it is the song which allows individuals to identify members of their own kind.

Studies in remote parts of South America have allowed scientists to redefine several populations of both pygmy and scops owl and reclassify them as different species instead of sub-species because the calls were different. This reclassification has been confirmed recently by analysing DNA.

The situation in South America is likely to become more complicated as the rapid deforestation fragments populations. Owls are relatively sedentary and these isolated groups without contact from neighbouring populations will, over time evolve into separate species.

Owl classification is very confusing differing from author to author and being constantly changed as new information comes to light. There are some species, which have only been discovered in the last 30 years, and others which, have only been seen a few times in the last century. It is not really surprising as many are small, secretive birds which are well camouflaged and nocturnal and come from areas where not much is known of even the diurnal species.

The Seychelles Owl was thought to be extinct for almost half a century but was recently rediscovered when it was heard calling on the wooded slopes of Marnie Island. The Madagascan Red Owl, a relative of the Barn Owl had only been seen once in sixty years until one was found being kept as a pet in a village hut, many miles from where they were thought to exist.

Obviously there is much still to be learned about such species not least so that we can preserve them, the future is bleak for all Madagascan wildlife let alone one which has only been seen twice and about which nothing is known.

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