Mystery Bird: African Scops-Owl, Otus senegalensis

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[Mystery bird] African Scops-Owl, Otus senegalensis, photographed in subsaharan Africa. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Thomas Dressler, 2008.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.


Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
I’m at a loss. I know where this bird was photographed, and so I know what it has to be, but I fail miserably at the little test I like to set myself: could I identify this bird correctly if I discovered it thousands of miles out of range? Not hardly, as they say.
This is obviously a small eared owl, what in the Old World is called a scops-owl Otus and in the New World a screech-owl Megascops. (That latter genus name is a bit of an oxymoron, a “giant shrimp.”) Not that long ago, the scops-owls of Europe and Africa were easy: they were all simply Scops Owl, members of a widespread and common species, but careful study has revealed that the complex actually includes a number of bafflingly similar “cryptic” species, distinguishable only by voice and the biochemist. The silent bird in this photo, an African Scops-Owl, can probably not be told visually from its very close relative the Eurasian Scops-Owl, which overlaps with it in winter across a broad band of sub-Saharan Africa.
More and more such cryptic species are being discovered, and we’d better be prepared for it. Taxonomic splits are the wave of the future, a delight for the die-hard lister and a puzzle for the careful birder anywhere in the world.
Review all mystery birds to date.

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: African Scops-Owl, Otus senegalensis

  1. JohnB says:

    Has to be African Scops Owl, but it’s a ringer for Eastern Screech Owl. The only bird it could be confused with in that part of the world is the Eurasian Scops Owl.

  2. Not having an African field guide, I’m not sure at all. Based on a quick googling of images, my guess is Eurasian Scops Owl (Otus scops).

  3. StoneL says:

    Yes it definitely is the Eurasian Scops Owl. When i was much younger we had these every (L’hibou i think it was called in french). Apparently they are nocturnal and don’t find their way round places very easily during the day. I remember one got electrocuted once when it got stock in a high voltage power cable.

  4. Bob O'H says:

    OK, now we’ve got the bird sorted, what species is the tree?

  5. David Harmon says:

    Nice camouflage!

  6. Chris Van Beveren says:

    My Kenya field guide shows African Scops Owl with a pale bill and Eurasian with a dark bill like the illustrated bird. Based on that I vote for Eurasian Scops Owl.