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The last time we saw this Little Owl was in 1892

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For the first time in more than 125 years, researchers have been able to observe and document a specimen of Otus brookii brookii, a subspecies of the Screech Owl Rajah. Details of this work are published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

An exceptional meeting

It’s May 2016. Andy Boyce, ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, is researching the behavior of different species of birds at different altitudes as part of his doctorate with the University of Montana. One day, while focusing on the capture and measurements of several songbirds, he receives a text from Keegan Tranquillo, a field biologist at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. He had just spotted a strange owl with orange eyes.

At the time, Boyce immediately thinks of Otus brookii brookii, but without really believing it. And for good reason, no living individual of this raptor, which represents a subspecies of the Radjah Screech Owl (Otus brookii), has not been observed since its collection in 1892 by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, 2,000 meters above sea level in the Malaysian province of Sarawak. The researcher rushes all the same on a path leading him to the place of the supposed meeting.

If we didn’t document it right away, this bird could disappear again for who knows how long.“, Will then explain the researcher at the same time very excited and very nervous.

He then saw him, still perched on his branch, a little incredulous. Covered in grays, blacks and dark browns, this owl differed greatly from the usual reddish hue of the more common owls in the region. He was also about 25% bigger. Finally, his piercing orange irises left little room for doubt: it was indeed a Rajah Screech Owl of the brookii subspecies.

While trying not to disturb or frighten the owl, Boyce and other researchers meticulously photographed and documented the spectacle before them.

Credits: Andy J. Boyce et al / The Wilson Journal of Ornithology

A probably threatened raptor

This brief observation confirms that this subspecies probably frequents primary mountain forests above 1,500 meters above sea level. In reality, researchers do not know exactly where its main habitat is, as studies conducted at lower altitudes are difficult due to deforestation.

The nocturnal tendencies of the raptor also make the animal even more difficult to spot. And because the bird was never captured, the researchers were unable to conduct long-term observational studies or collect blood samples for genetic analysis.

Finally, to make matters worse, we still ignore his qualities as singers. However, bird calls are often an easy way to apprehend a species of bird.

Naturally, that didn’t help the researchers who, in the days following this incredible encounter, were unable to locate the animal again. This being the case, the rediscovery of this bird that was believed to be extinct on Borneo is excellent news, after that of the black-browed Akalat (Malacocincla perspicillata) Last year.


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