Alan Murphy
Australia AU
Dec 29, 2015 December 29, 2015

Alan is a travel writer and author of over 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks, including the guides to Southern Africa and Zambia & Malawi.

Category: Alan Murphy's Column

This week Alan takes a close look at one of Africa’s most fearsome, little seen predators. One that strikes with military precision.

I can remember being at a birds of prey exhibition. They are quite common in Africa. You often see eagles, hawks and falcons flying and dive-bombing through the air with extraordinary manoeuvrability. These birds literally fly through hoops to eventually swoop on a morsel of meat.

The Silent Hunter
I was picked out of the crowd to stand in between two trainers. One held a Barn owl, the other some meat. I was exactly in the middle and was told to close my eyes and stand still. Hmmm…trusting aren’t I?

The owl flew straight past me, literally inches above my head, and I did not hear or feel it at all. They did the demonstration twice and I had no idea the owl was so close on either occasion. The second time I was really trying to sense it too. Stealth and owls are synonymous.

Nocturnal predators in Africa are often epitomised by the rippling power of a lion, the raw muscle of a leopard, or the skulking cunning of a hyena. But few can challenge owls: the great hunters of the night sky.

Silent Assassins
Owls are just so well adapted to their environment. These silent assassins are a picture of evolutionary beauty. Huge eyes give excellent night vision, but their hearing is so good that they can triangulate the slightest tell-tale sound of movement. They actually form a 3D map in their head. An owl can hunt very successfully in total darkness.

And of course they have the ability to fly in complete silence. The really freaky thing with owls is the way that they rotate their heads and necks though – as much as 270 degrees in either direction. It just looks so weird!

Photography
Oh, and be very careful when photographing an owl in the dark. The spotlight or flash can be stressful for the bird, temporarily affecting it’s eyesight. Illuminate the bird for just a few seconds while taking your shots. And make sure the spotlight is directed at the body rather than the head.

Owls are just another of Africa’s wildlife highlights. Yes, there’s the Big 5, but if you really want to get under the skin of this continent while on safari, you’ll do well to develop an appreciation for its unique creatures. And there is nothing more unique than the owl – a perfect example of nature at its evolutionary best.