Masked Owls of Southwest WA

Australian masked owls are stunning birds with their intricately coloured upper plumage, pale underside and large heart-shaped fascial disc. The darker sooty owls are not present in Western Australia, but we do have the Barn Owl and the Australian Masked Owl in southwest WA. The Barn Owl prefers more open country such as heathland, open woodland and even large areas of reedbeds, whereas the Masked Owl is usually found along the margins between forest and open farmland, often near the coast.

The Barn Owl is one of those birds which has adapted to many different climates and environments and has spread throughout the world. It is superbly adapted to hunt at night: large eyes enable it to navigate; it has fringed wing feathers that make its flight almost silent (so that it can hear its prey, rather than its prey not being able to hear the owl); its face is a large disc which gathers sound, and its ears are offset, one high and one low so that it able to can triangulate the location of the prey.  It also has long powerful legs and talons with which to grasp and crush its prey, which is then devoured whole, bones, fur and all! Once digested the owl regurgitates the bones and fur or feathers as a pellet, often at a favourite perch. Dissecting these pellets gives an insight into the owl’s diet.

 The Australian Masked Owl is much rarer than the Barn Owl, it is generally darker in colouration compared to the Barn Owl, notably it has darker, bolder feathering on the rim of the mask and may have a pale orange-cream chest and belly with dark flecking. The Australian Masked Owl is however almost twice the weight of the Barn Owl, although even with this discrepancy it can be difficult to identify with certainty. It has a more hunch-backed stance than the Barn Owl and in flight the head looks proportionately larger and its wings broader. It has the same hunting adaptions as the Barn Owl, but generally takes larger prey.

The call of both owls is a high-pitched screech, although the Masked Owl’s is louder, deeper and contains hisses, these calls are often made when flying.

Barn Owl numbers can often “irrupt” in areas where there is a plentiful food supply, such as when mice are in plague proportions. They can lay up to five eggs in a clutch and with plentiful food can rear all five chicks and even raise a second clutch. Such an irruption took place in Jerramungup Shire in 2018, a farmer reported large numbers roosting in his sheds and 40 owls were counted roosting in two machinery sheds by Steve Elson (WA Bird Notes, September 2018).

Eastern Barn Owl, Stirling Ranges
Eastern Barn Owl, Stirling Ranges
Eastern Barn Owl Roosting - Denmark
Eastern Barn Owl Roosting - Denmark
Masked Owl (James Peake - https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimonearth/)
Masked Owl (James Peake - https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimonearth/)