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Meet the owls

Powerful owl (Ninox strenua)

Photo of a Powerful owl

Kathryn Diehm, Getty Images

The powerful owl is the largest of Australia’s owls. The male’s deep,  low and impressive ‘whoo-hoo’ call may be heard over 2 km away.

What does it look like?

The powerful owl is big – up to 60cm in length from head to tail.   It has a rather small, rounded head with piercing yellow eyes set in a dark grey-brown facial mask that’s finely streaked with white.  It also has massive yellow feet.  

The female powerful owl is generally smaller than the male, with a narrower head and a more rounded crown.

Juveniles have a pure white breast and head (with black specks) and a dark face mask. 

Where do they live?

Powerful owls can be seen in east and south-east Australia. They like open forests and woodlands with wet, dense undergrowth along watercourses, but prefer sheltered gullies for breeding. 

As possum numbers increase in urban areas, powerful owls are increasingly observed during the day in suburban parks, often clutching the remains of a possum from the previous night’s hunting.

What do they eat?

Powerful owls hunt mostly at night. They will swoop down from trees, and use their feet to grab their prey. Ringtail possums and greater gliders are on the menu for powerful owls.  They will also hunt roosting birds, small rodents, marsupials and the occasional beetle. Scientists estimate one owl may eat 250-300 possums per year.

Did you know?

Powerful owls mate for life – with a pair bond that can last for over 30 years. 

More info (Nocturnal birds pdf)

What does it sound like?

Spectrograms

  • Adult powerful owl’s low-pitched woot-woot, with a long break between calls.

    Spectrogram of Adult powerful owl’s low-pitched woot-woot, with a long break between calls.
  • Juvenile begging call – shows repetitive high-pitched trilling.

    Spectrogram of Juvenile begging call – shows repetitive high-pitched trilling.

Barking owl (Ninox connivens)

Photo of a Barking owl

PDerrett, Getty Images

Barking owls are named after their distinctive double note ‘woof woof’ calls, which may be a duet between pairs. Their alarm call sounds like a woman screaming.

What does it look like?

Barking owls look like robust, compact versions of the related powerful owl. They are smaller in height, and have streaks on the breast rather than the chevron pattern seen on powerful owls.
Their eye colour is pale-yellow to yellow.

Northern populations of this species are darker and smaller.

Where do they live?

Barking owls are found in open woodlands and the edges of forests, often near farmland. They are widely distributed throughout Australia, but are absent from central desert areas.

What do they eat?

These owls are most active in the early hours of the night, and last hours before dawn.  Barking owls prey upon a wide variety of animals — small to medium mammals, birds, and large insects, reptiles and even fish!

Did you know?

Like all owl species in Australia, the barking owl nests in tree hollows. If there are no tree hollows available, barking owls may nest on the ground.

More info (Nocturnal birds pdf)

What does it sound like?

Spectrograms

  • Adult barking owl – low pitched repetitive bark along the bottom of the spectrogram.

    Spectrogram of Adult barking owl – low pitched repetitive bark along the bottom of the spectrogram.
  • Adult call with higher pitched chick trill – the adult bark is at the bottom of the spectrogram, with the trill above it.

    Spectrogram of Adult call with higher pitched chick trill – the adult bark is at the bottom of the spectrogram, with the trill above it.

Southern boobook (Ninox boobook )

Photo of a Southern boobook

Brian Horsey, Getty Images

The southern boobook is the smallest and most common owl in Australia. Their repetitive two-note call 'boo-book' or 'more-pork' is a familiar night sound for many Australians. Tasmania has its own boobook, the closely related Tasmanian boobook (Ninox leucopsis).

What does it look like?

Southern boobooks have a large head and otherwise compact appearance. Size and feather colour (plumage) may vary significantly across Australia, but all colour forms have a distinctive ‘spectacled’ mask, with large yellowish eyes.

Boobook feet are grey or yellow, and its bill is grey with a darker tip. Young southern boobooks are almost entirely buff-white on their breast and head.

Where do they live?

Boobooks live in a wide variety of habitats –as long as trees are present. 

What do they eat?

Southern boobooks will prey on insects and small birds or mammals, with the occasional invertebrate, amphibian or reptile. They are perch hunters, meaning they wait on a perch then pounce on their prey.

Did you know?

If the nights are too cold, southern boobooks may hunt during the day. 

More info (Nocturnal birds pdf)

What does it sound like?

Spectrograms

  • Adult boobook – showing repetitive two-note call.

    Spectrogram of Adult boobook – showing repetitive two-note call.
  • Juvenile high-pitched trilling.

    Spectrogram of Juvenile high-pitched trilling.

Eastern barn owl (Tyto alba delicatula)

Photo of a Eastern barn owl

Yvonne Van der Horst, Getty Images

At night, the pale form of an eastern barn owl may be glimpsed in a car’s headlights as it flies silently over open country, especially in grassy areas and farmland.

What does it look like?

A small owl with a white, heart-shaped facial disc. It is mottled light grey and buff above, and its underparts may be white or cream, with dark spots and barring.

The eastern barn owl has long, slender, finely feathered legs.

Where do they live?

Eastern barn owls can be found in farmland or suburbia.  Their preferred habitats are open grasslands, and grassy, open woodlands. Eastern barn owls are found all over Australia, and in eastern Tasmania. Eastern barn owls are a subspecies of the barn owl Tyto alba which occurs worldwide.

What do they eat?

Eastern barn owls often hunt on the ground, and mainly eat small mammals, particularly mice. They also eat insects, birds and reptiles.

Did you know?

The eastern barn owl’s huge ears (hidden in the feathers) and special heart-shaped facial disc allow the owl to pinpoint the location of a mouse, even in complete darkness. 

More info (Nocturnal birds pdf)

What does it sound like?

Spectrograms

  • Mid-pitched repetitive barn owl screeches can be seen, with a continuous higher-pitched noise (maybe wind) above, and the occasional two-note lower-pitched boobook call below.

    Spectrogram of Mid-pitched repetitive barn owl screeches can be seen, with a continuous higher-pitched noise (maybe wind) above, and the occasional two-note lower-pitched boobook call below.
  • The repetitive screech of juveniles (the constant line is a background of crickets).

    Spectrogram of The repetitive screech of juveniles (the constant line is a background of crickets).

Masked owl (Tyto novaehollandiae)

Photo of a Masked owl

Henry Cook, Getty Images

The masked owl is the second largest of the nocturnal birds in Australia, second only to the powerful owl.

What does it look like?

Masked owls are a large, robust owl with a well-defined facial disc (like the eastern barn owl). The colour of masked owls varies widely over their range – from light, to intermediate to very dark brown in colour.

The females are bigger than the males. Both have densely feathered legs.

Where do they live?

Masked owls live in a variety of woodland and forest habitats around Australia – generally less than 300km from the coast.  They need densely treed habitats, with plenty of large hollows to nest in.

What do they eat?

Masked owls mainly eat small to medium sized mammals including rodents, rabbits, possums and bandicoots. Reptiles, birds and insects may also be eaten.

Did you know?

In breeding season, male masked owls perform a high circling display while making a rhythmical cackling call. 

More info (Nocturnal birds pdf)

What does it sound like?

Spectrograms

  • Repetitive screech of the adult masked owl.

    Spectrogram of Repetitive screech of the adult masked owl.
  • Juvenile masked owl repetitive screeching.

    Spectrogram of Juvenile masked owl repetitive screeching.