Several of Kenya's birds have myths and legends associated with them. Some good, some bad. Of all birds that have superstitious beliefs linked to them in Kenya, owls are probably the most famous (or rather the most infamous) group.
This is because they are regarded as bad omens or signs of evil in many traditions across the country. As a result, they are often persecuted on sight. There are also some beliefs about their eggs having magical powers. Such beliefs have now become a serious threat to owls in Kenya. The roots of these beliefs are complex but it's important to try and debunk them and enlighten people on the real importance of owls to us and our ecosystems. The reality is that owls are simply birds, just like any other. They are highly specialized to a nocturnal lifestyle (active at night) and so have several features that make them unique. They are the eagles and hawks of the night and are very important in keeping our environment healthy by controlling the populations of various small animals, including agricultural pests.
Here are just a few of the 19 species of owls that can be found in Kenya:
Barn Owl (Tyto alba). This is the most common and widespread owl in the world. It occurs on every continent except Antarctica and is often found in the roofs of buildings (hence the name). This species is an expert hunter of mice and other small rodents. This makes it an excellent pest control agent. In fact, they are so efficient at this that they have been proven to be effective, cheap and environmentally-friendly alternatives to rodenticide for the control of rodent pests. Installation of nest boxes for this species around farms can be very beneficial to Kenyan farmers. This owl does have a rather scary vocalization though. It sounds like a scream or shriek (unlike the hooting sound of most other species). Hearing this sound in the darkness of the night can be rather terrifying and might have contributed to the superstitious beliefs that owls are evil.
African Wood Owl (Strix woodfordii). This owl is found in a wide range of woodlands and forests around Kenya, including wooded suburbs. It's quite small and often well camouflaged. I took this photo in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, where you can also see the Sokoke Scops Owl (Otus ireneae) that is only found in the coastal forests of Kenya and northern Tanzania.
Pearl-spotted Owlet (Glaucidium perlatum). This tiny owl can be found in various savannah and bush habitats, except along the coast and the Lake Victoria basin. It is highly vocal and is always a pleasant sound to hear at night, especially when out camping.
Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus). This species is rather large as far as owls go (hence the comparison to an eagle), but among eagle owls it is actually one of the smallest. It can be found in a variety of habitats but is replaced in northern Kenya by the almost identical Greyish Eagle Owl (Bubo cinerascens). I took this photo at Lake Magadi at night with a friend pointing a flashlight at the owl. The bird was a bit far and the photo didn't turn out quite as sharp as I had hoped, but that's photography for you and I'm still happy with the photo.
This Spotted Eagle Owl in Kajiado had an injured left eye, possibly from a stone thrown at it. Persecution is a big threat to owls in Kenya.
Verreaux's Eagle Owl (Bubo lacteus). The pink eyelids and huge size of this owl makes it difficult to confuse with any other species. This is Africa's largest owl and is often called the Giant Eagle Owl in southern Africa. It is a powerful hunter and probably the most significant predator of hedgehogs in Africa. It can tackle prey as large as Kirk's Dik-Dik, Grey Heron and Egyptian Cobra, but also eats several rodents that can be agricultural pests, such as mole-rats.
The disc-like shape of owls' heads and their big forward-facing eyes give them a unique look that might also be associated with the myths about them. This unique head shape is however a perfect design that makes owls the efficient predators they are. The disc-shaped face helps them to hone in on the slightest sound as they listen for their prey at night. Their sense of hearing is extremely acute. Many times better than ours. Their eyes are large to maximize the light they can capture at night. The eyes face forward to give them binocular vision, just like any other predator that hunts by sight e.g. cats or eagles.
Owls are not bad omens. Having them around is in fact a good thing. Next time you see one in your neighbourhood, don't kill it. Remember that it is doing you a service by eating the rats in your compound or farm at night.
If you'd like to go out and see Kenya's amazing owls for yourself, it's always a good idea to get a professional birding guide to help you find them. Feel free to contact me for recommendations on good guides that will help you see some owls! And if you see some owls anywhere, please share your observations with email@example.com to contribute to the Kenya Bird Map project.
To learn more about the birds of Kenya and other parts of Africa, have a look at these book recommendations.