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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Close Encounters with Owls of Singapore
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Like humans and apes, the eyes of this nocturnal bird are sited in the front of the face and not the sides. And, again more like humans than other birds, owls have flat faces. Perhaps that was why, when avid birder Dr Ho Hua Chew came face to face with a Brown Hawk Owl on Pulau Ubin, he described it as "an eerie feeling ... as if I had encountered something out of this world". Photos by Goo Chuen Hang unless otherwise indicated.

I was on Pulau Ubin, while I was combing somewhat desperately, a shadowy patch of belukar for Jungle Fowl, that I came suddenly on an owl. It was a startling face to face encounter with the Brown Hawk Owl (Ninox scutulata), a bird whose insistent "coo-oop" call I had up till then heard many a time in the Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Forest but never seen.

Now, in the thick secondary forest of Ubin, something had flushed this owl out from the branch it must have been perched on, to softly land on another one closely, right in front of me. I recognised the Brown Hawk Owl right away, it was staring at me piercingly, now and then shifting its head from side to side, as if sizing me up.

An eerie feeling struck me (momentarily), it was as if I had encountered something out of this world.

American Indians revere, and some fear, the owl because they believe that the wise owl is the bridge between our physical realm and the Spirit realm, and an encounter with an owl is a visitation from/by Spirit(s). Could they have known something we do not?

The Brown Hawk Owl has indeed a strange appearance. It has a roundish head with large gleaming golden-yellow eyes that conjure up an image of a forest sprite. No wonder this encounter remains vivid in my memory, though it happened many years ago.

But whatever my imagination, my thoughts about this bird is supported by local folklore. More often heard than seen, even by intrepid owl watchers, the local information we have been able to gather about this nocturnal bird of prey is shrouded in mystery and even superstition. This is partly due to their strikingly unusual appearance, their elusive behaviour (often heard but rarely seen), and their weird-sounding calls.

While most other birds roost blissfully through the dark night, this is the time the owl, with his night vision eyes (that enable him to move and hunt prey), takes flight and the silence of his flights, coupled with his strange sounding hoots, can have a disquieting effect on the insomniac human. But for the birder with his torchlight, night forays into the forest can be exciting. Most owls can be spotted if you know their calls.

There are no less than seven species of owls found in Singapore. Two of these species are migratory but avid birders say we can probably add two more species to our current checklist.

Owls are unlike the diurnal (day) birds in many ways. Firstly they have special anatomical features such as large eyes with a large fast cornea and lenses. They have a large head and a flat, full-plumaged face (so-called "facial disc") with eyes that are set forward, just like those in humans and in apes giving them a stereoscopic version. They have features that enable them to fly and hunt silently in the darkness. These are the generously proportional wings that spread out their weight and the fine fringes to the flight feathers which are covered over the surface with a velvety pile. Both of these combine to produce a "flying machine" that is so silent it will not alert even a sensitive mouse.

Generally the owl tail is short and rounded, never forked or graduated. But while their eyes are penetrating, they lack mobility and this explains the owl's strange habit of rotating their heads, when something catches their attention from the side. They need to look dead straight at their prey. Some species have the so-called ear tufts but this term is a misnomer as these tufts are not a hearing device. They are merely growths of feathers on the crown and how upright they are is dependent mostly on the owl's mood.

Owls are carnivorous and, like all birds of prey, they have powerful and sharp claws and their grip on victims (mostly rodents) is deadly. This is aided by strong hooked bills for tearing up prey. The smaller prey is swallowed whole and the indigestible parts such as hair, bones and feathers become pellets in their stomach and are eventually ejected from their mouths.

Some species are strictly nocturnal or crepuscular, being also capable of hunting in broad daylight but most are active at night. The most common owls in Singapore—they are found throughout the main and offshore islands—are the Collared Scops-Owl (Otus bakkamoena). They are also the smallest resident owl. They have prominent upright ear-tufts and are generally brownish, with mottled markings on their plumage. The buffy nuchal collar from which they get their common name, is not present in some individuals. The Collared Scops' call is a gentle two-note hoot—"poo-oo", with the emphasis on the first note, the second being very soft, almost inaudible.

Owls are useful to man

Collared Scops-Owl
(Otus bakkamoena)

Collared Scops are owls of the forest but they have spread and adapted to suburban areas. They are useful to man, feeding mainly on insects (beetles, leaf-grasshoppers) and rats. (In Australia owls are being encouraged to controls rats in farms: Acres Australia, Dec '96. They have also been called the Night-watchman of the Bush or wilderness. This is not a mere fanciful term. Being predators, they maintain the balance in an ecosystem and actually keep the pest species in check. The owl plays this vital role without poisoning the environment—something that happens when Man uses pesticides.)

Collared Scops here hover near houses by the edge of woods and they roost in abandoned buildings but they usually nest in tree-holes. However, in 1988, a pair of Collared Scops were found nesting in an occupied house in Alexandra, the first record of such a happening for this species for the Malay Peninsula (and perhaps for its whole distribution range).

I had the chance to check out the nest (it consisted of twigs) and I was surprised to find that it was placed on a ledge behind a drainage pipe in the porch. This faced the front door and despite dogs and cats, four nestlings were hatched and bred. But there were difficulties for the parenting owls in suburbia. A couple of the nestlings were, on different occasions, found helpless on the ground and one of these was later found dead in the porch, cause unknown. Then, on another occasion, when one of the fallen nestlings was picked up by the house owner and kept indoors, one of the parent birds actually ventured into the house with food for its young.

The nesting Collared Scops
at Alexandra
Photo by Ho Hua Chew

A grounded nestling of the Collared Scops at Alexandra
Photo by Ho Hua Chew

Oriental Scops-Owl
(Otus sunia)

Do not assume that all small owls with ear tufts are the Collared Scops for there is another species of the Scops that can be found in Singapore. This is the Oriental Scops-Owl. This is a migrant species from northern Asia and so far there have been only two recorded sightings of the Oriental Scops. The first confirmed sighting was in 1978, in Sime Road while the second sighting was in 1994, on top of Mount Faber. Goo Chuen Hang spotted and photographed the Oriental Scops on the branch of a tree that was close to a lamp. The bird was hanging around for the insects flitting around the lamp.

Like the Collared Scops, the Oriental Scops is a bird of woods and forests, feeding chiefly on insects and nesting in tree holes. But the Oriental Scops is a smaller, paler and much prettier bird. It's distinguished (from the Collared) by its yellow eyes, the absence of a nuchal collar and the presence of bolder blackish streaks on its undersides.

The Brown Hawk-Owl that I had encountered on Ubin is another common owl of the woods and forests. The calls of the Brown Hawk-Owl and the Collared Scops are the two most distinctive and dominant sounds of our forests in the night (not surprising as most other birds are fast asleep). But unlike the Collared Scops' gentle hoot, the Brown Hawk-Owl has an ear-perking two-note hoot with a distinctive lilt in the second note.

In fine weather, the forest at night seems to teem with life with the reverberating "coo-OOP" calls of this resident species. This bird is mainly restricted to the forest in the nature reserves but are occasionally seen or heard in the woods of Sentosa and Pulau Ubin. They nest in tree holes. There is a migrant subspecies that comes from northern Asia and the Soviet Far East during the northern winter but they are difficult to distinguish from the local birds.

Brown Hawk-Owl
(Ninox scutulata)

The Brown Hawk-Owl is slightly larger than the Collared Scops and it is one of only three owl species found in Singapore that do not have ear-tufts. As I said earlier, the Brown Hawk-Owl has a very strange appearance. Its facial disc is rather small, in fact inconspicuous. It is rich-brown on the crown and upperparts while its pale breast and belly is marked heavily with broad rufous brown streaks.

This species not only looks like a hawk but they also hunt like hawks—which explains why its been so named. Brown Hawk-owls usually take their prey, mainly insects, on the wing. Swooping above or through trees in the darkness, they are easily mistaken for nightjars.

Illustration by
Goo Chuen Hang
Spotted Wood-Owl
(Strix seloputo)

But one of the most exciting sounds to come from our woods and forests belongs to another resident owl—the Spotted Wood-Owl.

This bird is twice the size of the Brown Hawk-Owl and emits a loud and powerful coughing sound somewhat like the barking of a dog.

This sound has been described as the "most exciting" and also the "most eerie frightening sound" of the forest in the night, and we can well believe that the Spotted Woods call has given rise to stories of supernatural happenings.
It's not too difficult to hear the Spotted Wood, as it prefers the edge of the forest and woods and also tends to stick to the same neck of the woods. It also calls at quite specific times in the twilight hours of roughly between 6.30pm and 7.30pm, as if to announce that it is now up and about. The Spotted Wood is a large owl that is generally brownish with whitish spots all over the upper parts of its body and, like the Brown Hawk, it also does not have ear-tufts.

The first sighting of the Spotted Wood on Pulau Ubin (in 1992), was a most exciting and memorable event. The Bird Group of Nature Society (Singapore) was having its annual get-together at a chalet near the Ubin village when birder Sutari was asked to imitate the calls of various birds—something Sutari does pretty well. When Sutari imitated the Helmeted Hornbill's call, to everyone's surprise, the response was a short barking call—a call that rang familiar to the more discerning birders. We rushed out with our torches and spotted a large bird quietly sitting on a tree, very close to the chalet—it was indeed a "Spottie." About four years passed before we spotted another Spottie in Ubin (in 1996) The bird was seen in the daytime, roosting on a rubber tree near the first location. It could well have been the same bird.

Buffy Fish-Owl
(Ketupa ketupu)

Another owl that's a resident of woods and forests is the Buffy Fish-Owl, so called because it lives on fish and other aquatic life and haunts streams and the reservoirs, looking for its prey. The Buffy Fish is larger than the Brown Hawk but smaller than the Spotted Wood and the first part of its name aptly describes its buffy appearance on its undersides, with fine streaks; its upper parts are covered with dark bars.

Look a Buffy in the eye and you'll be sure to see a whitish spot where its eyebrows meet—a very distinctive feature. The Buffy Fish-Owl is also distinguished by its brilliant yellowish eyes and prominent ear-tufts, usually tilted at 45 degrees.

Apart from several one-off sightings, two pairs are known to haunt the Central Catchment Reserve while another two pairs are said to have made their homes in the abandoned rubber estates bordering the aqua-culture ponds in Pulau Ubin. One of the pairs in the Central Catchment was seen feeding a juvenile. Recently two more species of forest owls, the Barred Eagle-Owl (Bubo sumatranus) and the Bay Owl (Phodilus badius), both residents of the Malay Peninsula, were reported in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Neither are as yet on the checklist.

Photo by
Alan Owyong
Barn Owl
(Tyto alba)

Not all owls are inhabitants of woods and forest. Some have adapted very well to suburbia, living side by side with humans, very often with the latter having no inkling of their presence. One of these is the Barn Owl, so called because in farming communities in Europe, America and Australia, they often roost in the barn. In Malaysia, when the Barn Owl was introduced to control rats, they happily took up residence in the rafters of houses in the rural areas.

Here in Singapore, they have become widespread since the 1980s, roosting and nesting in abandoned buildings but they also make their home in the trees.

The most famous pair of Barn Owls in Singapore earned their fame by choosing to haunt the busy area below Benjamin Sheares Bridge—undeterred by the traffic and a somewhat guaranteed tick for the annual Bird Race.

Encountering the Barn Owl, most likely seen flying across the headlights of one's car, can be unnerving as this bird has a ghostly appearance. This is partly due to its pale colouring but this owl is also rather silent—it doesn't hoot but makes hissing and screeching noises. This owl is about the size of the Buffy Fish, it has longish legs and a distinctive heart-shaped facial disc with rather small eyes.

Another owl that's found in open country, like marshes and grasslands, instead of woods and forests, is the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). This bird, which rests and nests in grassy grounds, is a rare migrant and one's best chance for seeing it is in Singapore's coastal reclaimed areas—the most recent recorded sighting was outside Tanah Merah Country Club. It can be spotted flying in the day, quartering low over the ground for rodents and small birds. The Short-eared Owl can be mistaken for a Marsh Harrier as, like that marsh bird, it is also generally brownish and does not have prominent ear-tufts.

Whether a resident of the forest or open areas. Owls are fascinating birds and searching for them under cover of darkness is an exciting experience, and one that calls for silence, patience and keen hearing skills. But once you spot them, seeing them—if a little startling and even momentarily frightening—is a spectacular treat.

Dr Ho Hua Chew is a NUS philosophy lecturer and the Chairman of the NSS Conservation Committee.

Acknowledgement: The writer would like to thank the following—Goo Chuen Hang for his information on the Oriental Scops and all the photos printed here under his name; O K Wong for information on the Buffy Fish-Owls at Lower Peirce and Seletar Reservoirs; Sutari Supari for info on the most recent Spotted Wood sighting at Pulau Ubin; Dr Hsu Li Chieh for his diagnostic info on the blind Buffy Fish Owl found by Lim Kim Keang at Seletar Reservoir; Dr Richard McDonough for info on the Collared Scops nesting at his house in Alexandra, and Betty Khoo, Lim Kim Seng and R Subaraj for other useful info.

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Ho, H. C. (1994) 'The Nesting of the Collared Scops in a Building (Singapore 1988)", Singapore Avifauna, Vol. 8, No. 3
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