Pharaoh eagle-owl (Bubo ascalaphus)

GenusBubo (1)
SizeLength: 46 – 50 cm (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

One of the smaller eagle-owl species, the pharaoh eagle-owl is an attractive bird of prey with striking, large orange-yellow eyes and mottled plumage. The head and upperparts are tawny and densely marked with black and creamy-white streaks and blotches, while the underparts are pale creamy-white, with black streaks on the upper breast and fine reddish-brown vermiculations on the lower breast and belly. The face has the disc-like form typical of most owls, defined by a dark rim, the robust bill is black and hooked, and the head is crowned with small ear tufts. There are two recognised subspecies of pharaoh eagle-owl, Bubo ascalaphus ascalaphus and Bubo ascalaphus desertorum , the latter being smaller and paler with sandier colouration (2).

Distributed throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East, subspecies Bubo ascalaphus ascalaphus occupies the northern part of this species range, being found in north-west Africa and northern Egypt, east to western Iraq. By contrast, Bubo ascalaphus desertorum can be found in the Sahara Desert, from Western Sahara, east, to Sudan, as well as in Eritrea, Ethiopia and much of the Arabian Peninsula, as far south as northern Oman (1) (2).

The pharaoh eagle-owl is generally found in arid habitats, including open desert plains, rocky outcrops, mountain cliffs and wadis (2) (4).

A nocturnal species, the booming call of the male pharaoh eagle-owl can often be heard at sunset, as foraging activity commences (4). This species is an efficient and opportunistic predator, exploiting almost any small animal that it can find (2). Hunting normally takes place over a range of about five square kilometres, with the owl usually alighting on a rocky perch, and using its acute hearing to detect prey movements before swooping down on its victim (2) (5). Small mammals are most commonly taken, but snakes, lizards, birds, beetles and scorpions may all feature in this species’ diet (6).

The pharaoh eagle-owl forms monogamous, lifelong breeding pairs, which mate in late winter, with egg-laying taking place in February and March (2). While nests are usually constructed in shallow scrapes amongst rocks or in crevices (2), incredibly, in Egypt this species has been recorded nesting on at least one of the pyramids (7). A clutch of two eggs is usually laid, which are incubated by the female for around 31 to 36 days, while the male brings food. The young leave the nest after 20 to 35 days, but may not fully fledge for another month, and may remain dependent on the parent birds until half a year old (2).

The main threat to the pharaoh eagle-owl appears to be persecution, as in certain local areas it believed to be an evil spirit and is killed on sight (8). Nevertheless, this species’ widespread distribution and apparent abundance in many areas would seem to indicate that it is not currently at risk (1).

While there are currently no conservation measures specifically targeting the pharaoh eagle-owl (1), it is found is several protected areas including Azraq Nature Reserve in the eastern desert of Jordan (9).

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  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2009)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1999) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-Owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (February, 2009)
  4. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, United Arab Emirates.
  5. Rifai, L.B., Al-Melhim, W.N., Gharaibeh, B.M. and Amr, Z.S. (2000) The diet of the desert eagle owl, Bubo bubo ascalaphus, in the Eastern Desert of Jordan. Journal of Arid Environments, 44: 369 - 372.
  6. Llanes, I.B., Tourenq, C., Drew, C. and Al Dhaheri, S. (2008) Presence of the blue swimming crab (Portunus pelagicus) in the diet of the pharaoh eagle-owl (Bubo ascalaphus) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Journal of Raptor Research, 42: 70 - 72.
  7. African Bird Club (February, 2009)
  8. World Owl Trust (February, 2009)
  9. Shehab, A.H. and Ciach, M. (2008) Diet Composition of the Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Bubo ascalaphus, in Azraq Nature Reserve, Jordan. Turkish Journal of Zoology, 32: 65 - 69.