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Mackinder’s Eagle Owl Project – East Africa
Darcy Ogada — in East Africa Project    Share
Mackinder's Eagle Owl
Mackinder's Eagle Owl
The Mackinder's Eagle Owl (Bubo capensis mackenderii) is regarded as being the African representative of the world's largest owl, the Horned Owl-Eagle Owl superspecies, which extends across Eurasia and the Americas. The Mackinder's Eagle Owl population ranges from Zimbabwe in the south, via the high-altitude areas of Malawi and Tanzania northwards to Kenya. The race mackinderii was named after Sir Halford Mackinder, who made the first ascent of Mount Kenya. The birds usually occur in rocky or mountainous terrain where they nest on ledges amidst thick woodland and river valleys. In 2004, The Peregrine Fund's East Africa Project provided support to Darcy Ogada, a PhD candidate who is conducting a study on the Mackinder's Eagle Owl at Mweiga in Central Kenya. Darcy has located five breeding and three non-breeding pairs so far. Her study aims to identify the factors that influence a high population density at Mweiga despite the pressures of an increasing human population and a negative local perception of owls in general.

Notes from the field: February 2005 — By Darcy Ogada

It’s 8:00am and it already feels like its 85ºF. I guess people expect that it should be that hot when you’re straddling the equator, but I’m also at over 6,000 ft in Kenya’s central highlands. My assistant and I are checking non-kill mouse traps on a grid we’ve set up on the side of a steep slope. There’s lots of livestock wandering by, a herd of goats, a couple of cattle with bells jingling around their necks and herdsboys following not too far behind. Down below are "shambas" or farmer’s fields. There are a few people who have already arrived to water their crops from the small stream that bisects the shambas. We don’t find any rodents in our traps this morning, which is the way it’s been since August, the last time we caught a rodent at this site. We’ve been tracking the life cycles of the rodents in order to better understand the diet of Mackinder’s Eagle Owls, which inhabit nearby cliffs and feed on the rodents and other mammals including rock hyrax and rabbits, and also occasionally eat birds, snakes and crabs.

In June of last year, I started what I anticipate will be at least a two-year project studying Mackinder’s Eagle Owls, a regionally threatened species, in central Kenya. These owls are normally found in areas of high-elevation near ravines or other rocky areas. In Kenya these owls inhabit high-elevation protected areas, such as Mt. Kenya and Aberdares National Parks. They are also found in the central highlands in agricultural fields and grasslands in the few areas where humans will tolerate them. Owls are taboo in most African cultures and this poses an enormous problem for the conservation of owls outside of protected areas across the continent.

Examining owl pellets to determine prey.
Examining owl pellets to determine prey.
In central Kenya, I was fortunate to find a local farmer and conservationist, Paul Muriithi, who has worked diligently over the years to convince his local community about the benefits of protecting owls after he witnessed his community persecuting these magnificent creatures almost to the point of local extinction. The strength of the taboo against owls is such that finding an African willing to work with these birds, such as Paul, is extremely rare even amongst well-educated Kenyans. With Paul’s efforts within the community to protect the remaining owls well underway, we joined together to study the ecology of these owls living adjacent to areas of high agricultural productivity and human populations. Our goals are to understand how farming practices influence the diet and breeding success of this owl and in turn, to determine if the owls are affecting rodent populations within the nearby farms. To do this, we are live-trapping rodents every month and marking them with ear tags so that we know the recapture rate from day-to-day and from month-to-month. In this way we will know of any fluctuations in either rodent abundance or their diversity. By collecting owl pellets that contain the remains of earlier meals, we can compare what the owls are eating with abundance and diversity of the rodent prey population that we know from our trapping efforts. From this we can tell if the owls are switching to consuming different prey species when one species becomes more abundant and thus, having a possible controlling effect on rodent pests.

In addition, we are also learning more about the natural history of this owl. Owls are notoriously difficult to study due to the problem of finding them and because of their nocturnal habits. There is still a lot we need to learn about this species and most owl species in Africa. In particular, we are studying the breeding behavior and determining the home range size of this owl. Finally, we are collecting blood and tissue samples for use in DNA analysis. This owl is one of three subspecies of the Cape Eagle Owl, which is found in southern Africa. Scientists have debated whether these subspecies are in fact independent species in their own right and our study is contributing valuable DNA and behavioral evidence that will ultimately answer this question.

In addition to the scientific data we are collecting, the project is strongly focused on long-term conservation of Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in human-dominated landscapes where they face continued persecution. To accomplish this, we are working in close cooperation with local farmers who have granted us access to our sites, as all the nests and rodent trapping sites reside on private land. The project gives small monetary awards to farmers who provide security for our rodent traps and for those who give detailed information about owls residing on their property that we are unaware of. Paul has developed a network of volunteer "owl informants" throughout the surrounding communities who keep the project aware of the movements of local owls and new nest sites. By instilling this type of local "ownership" of the project we can see the changes in people’s attitudes towards owls on their land. In addition, having a project run by an outsider (myself) who is working with a local (Paul), has given validity to the work Paul has done throughout the past five years when many people initially thought him deranged for working with such a taboo animal. Although many farmers cannot see the importance of conserving owls in terms of the broader picture of biodiversity conservation due to their often limited education, they now understand the role owls can play in controlling pest species in their fields and this is a positive step that the project is encouraging through our local education efforts.

Finally, the project is developing the sustainable role of these owls in the bird tourism niche. An effort originally started a few years ago by Paul, birders seeking a rare glimpse of this secretive owl are taken to nearby cliffs, shown roosting owls and learn more about them without having to spend days or weeks trying to find one. While this type of eco-tourism does not disturb the owls because of the distance from which observers stand, it generates income for the local farmers from the fee visitors pay to be taken and shown the owls.

In 2003 the site had over 1,200 visitors, including overseas tourists and local school groups, an invaluable educational resource in an area of the world where these creatures are usually stoned to death instead of being of observed through binoculars. In achieving this goal, we have recently developed a website www.owlspot.com, which we hope will encourage more people to stop and visit the owls and learn more about their unique natural history.

Just last week an article appeared in one of the local papers about Paul and the work he’s been doing with the owls. A radio presenter gave a summary of the article over the airwaves and invited listeners to phone in with their comments. Some of the listeners didn’t know what an owl was and the rest decided that Paul was practicing “witchcraft!” Well, we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of work to do!

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