Sao Tome scops-owl (Otus hartlaubi)

French: Petit-duc de Sao Tomé
Spanish: Autillo de Santo Tomé
GenusOtus (1)
SizeLength: 16 – 19 cm (2)
Weightc. 80 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

This small owl, named after the only island it inhabits, has warm reddish-brown plumage with indistinct, fine reddish markings and black streaks. The underparts are lighter but are boldly streaked with black and have brown, rufous and white markings. The tail bears narrow buff coloured bars and the feathers on the shoulders are adorned with white spots tipped with black. The rounded face, typical of all owls, is also a light reddish-brown, with a white chin, white ‘eyebrows’ and tiny ear tufts (2). The sharp, hooked bill and large, forward-facing eyes are yellow, and are both adaptations for hunting and capturing prey (2) (4). The São Tomé scops-owl calls with a high-pitched ‘hu-hu-hu’ or a low, harsh ‘kowe’ (2)

This species is found only on the island of São Tomé (2) (5). Situated in the Gulf of Guinea, São Tomé lies 255 kilometres off the coast of Gabon and covers an area of 857 square kilometres (6)

The São Tomé scops-owl inhabits primary forest and mature secondary forest (2), up to an elevation of 1,500 metres (7).

The São Tomé scops-owl is a largely nocturnal bird, but it may also sometimes be active during the day when not roosting in tree cavities amongst dense foliage (2) (5). It is thought that breeding takes place between August and October, just before the start of the short rains (2). Nesting taking place in a tree cavity or possibly on the ground (5), and São Tomé scops-owl fledglings have been observed in October (2).

Insects make up the majority of this owl’s diet, particularly grasshoppers, beetles and moths, but small lizards are also sometimes eaten (2). It forages in the dense vegetation of the lower parts of the forest, dropping down onto its prey from a perch, plucking it from foliage, or snatching it from the air whilst in flight. Only occasionally does the São Tomé scops-owl descend to the ground (2).

Following human colonisation, vast swathes of forest on São Tomé were cleared to make space for sugar cane, coffee and cocoa plantations. By the early 1900s, São Tomé was the largest cocoa producer in the world, with an estimated 42 percent of the island given over to growing cocoa (6). Luckily for the wildlife, this situation did not last and a crash in cocoa prices saw many plantations abandoned and revert into secondary forest (6).

Today however, habitat loss again poses a threat to the São Tomé scops-owl. The privatisation of land has led to an increase in the number of small farms and the clearance of trees (7), and areas of both primary and secondary forest face the potential threats of agricultural development and an increased demand for timber (6). Previously remote areas of forest have been made more vulnerable by the construction of roads along the east and west coasts of the island, which increase access to these forests (7). In addition, competition from the common barn-owl (Tyto alba) and predation by cats may be impacting populations of this threatened bird (2).

The protection of forest on São Tomé appears to be an essential measure for the survival of the island’s endemic scops-owl. A National Park and a Zona Ecologica (Ecological Zone) have been proposed, but without ratification these areas remain worryingly unprotected. Similarly, a law for the protection of threatened species on São Tomé awaits final approval (7). In the meantime, further research on this species’ biology and ecology is required (2) (7), which will help inform any future conservation measures.

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)