Demystifying the owl and its hoot

May 5, 2009 12:00 am

, NYAHURURU, Kenya, May 5 – Did you know that an owl can turn its head almost completely round? Or that the owl cannot see in daylight? Or even that the feather tufts on an owl’s head are its ears? But you must have heard that if you hear the hoot of an owl, bad luck will befall you.

In African myths and traditions, owls are associated with all manner of superstition. But these are just misconceptions that have been passed down through generations.

Paul Mureithi is one man who has set out to shatter the myths associated with the owls and has made a name for himself through his Owl Spot project. The project is located at the Kiawara trading centre in Nyeri North district and was started as an ecotourism project back in 1997.

Owl Spot Kenya is a brainchild of Mr Mureithi, a farmer and conservationist. The project was started to encourage his community to protect owls and their habitats. It offers a unique opportunity to view cliff-dwelling eagle owls in the wild.

It has not been an easy task for the trade to find acceptance among the local community, he says.

“At first locals had a negative attitude towards the project but the perception has changed over the years with more people accepting it as a way of conserving the environment and earning a living.”

Like any other bird, Mr Mureithi who was interviewed by Capital News on his farm, says a person cannot die because an owl hooted.

“Owls are birds of prey that actively feed and hunt throughout the night and during the twilight hours,” he explains. “Their large eyes, nocturnal nature and eerie calls have led to fear and loathing by many.”

Since June 2004, Darcy Ogada (Research Associate with the National Museums of Kenya in the Ornithology Department) together with Paul Mureithi have been studying the ecology and conservation status of this population of owls that lives in such close proximity to humans.

Their work investigates the diet, habitat requirements, reproductive biology and influences of farming practices on Mackinder’s eagle owls.

The work involves trapping small mammals to determine prey abundance, collecting owl pellets to understand their diet, making extensive observations of owls during their breeding season and measuring crops in nearby farms to better understand the influence of farming practices on an owl’s diet.

Nevertheless, owls play an important role in the balance of forest and open land environments; they prey on rodents, reptiles and small game.

Starting out with only town pairs of owls, Mr Mureithi is now the pride owner of 36 pairs of the bird. The owls stay in pairs – male and female.

The owls belong to the Class: Aves, of the Order: Strigiformes, of the Family Strigidae.

An owl’s eyes are fixed, so it cannot move them from side to side as human beings can. It has to move its entire head. But thanks to its specialized neck and muscles – it can move its head rapidly and about 270 degrees, which is almost ¾ of a circle.

Mr Mureithi’s Mackinder Eagle Owl farm is located 60 kilometres North of Nyeri town, on the Nyeri-Nyahururu road. He takes visitors on a guided tour, which can last anything between 30 minutes and an entire day, depending on the level of interest.

As the farm is located on the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains, it is an ideal location for birding enthusiasts to see the bird species unique to the area including Little Rock Thrush, African Black Duck, Giant Kingfisher and more.

Owl Spot has attracted international enthusiasts who have since sponsored a Sh6 million project to bring tapped water to the surrounding community.

The eco-tourism project has also sponsored school going children in both primary and secondary school and colleges.

The Peregrine Fund, Miami Metrozoo, John Ball zoo, Seaworld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, National Geographic Society and the Raptor Research Foundation are among the organisations sponsoring the Mackinder Eagle Project.

The project encourages Kenyans to undertake avian research by offering training on the field to interns from the National Museums of Kenya Ornithology Department.

“Interns join us in the field each month and assist the project in data collection. In return, interns gain valuable field experience and skills, while learning about owls and their ecology, and the various aspects involved in running a long-term scientific project,” says Mr Mureithi.


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