Owls tend to be overlooked because they are nocturnal hunters and because many of our owls are comparatively rare. However, neither of these fits the spotted eagle owl which is by far the most common and widespread of our owls. In addition to this, they have adapted to man and his towns and cities. They are found in every town and village in the Southern Cape and are one of our commonest birds of prey. They also have a distinctive call – the male with two notes and the female with three. They sit on the top of roofs and on electricity poles and call loudly enough to be heard inside our houses.
The spotted eagle owl is the second largest owl in the southern Cape – only the Verreaux’s eagle owl is larger but is it much rarer. Like all predators they will kill and eat anything they can overpower and kill. However, their feet are comparatively small compared to the other eagle owls and while they will kill mice and small birds, they in fact probably eat many more insects than mammals and birds. They do occasionally manage to find a small snake and kill it. They will often sit below a street light and catch the insects drawn to the light – the insects hit the light and fall to the street below. Unfortunately they also are sitting where cars travel so many of them become the victims of hit and drive accidents!
Spotted eagle owls usually nest on the ground under a rock or sloping tree, but if they can find a suitable place in the fork of a large tree or the corner of a building above ground level they will utilise these nest sites because they are safer than nest sites on the ground. The owls nesting on buildings become extremely tame and will allow one to approach them and their chicks without undue alarm. Safe nest sites are utilised year after year by the owls. When one of such a pair dies, it is usually replaced by another bird fairly quickly.
Photo: A spotted eagle owl nesting in a huge coniferous tree at the National Botanic Gardens in George, feeding a small chick with pieces of mouse. Note that the eyes are nearly closed to avoid damage should a chick’s beak get too close.