Serendib scops-owl (Otus thilohoffmanni)

GenusOtus (1)
SizeHeight (crown to tail tip): c. 165 mm (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The astonishing discovery of this tiny owl in 2001 in the southern rain forests of Sri Lanka stunned biologists around the world, representing the first new bird species to be identified in the country since 1868 (3). Ornithologist Deepal Warakagoda initially located the Serendib scops-owl in 1995 by its unfamiliar call, but it took a further six years of tracking this elusive and mysterious bird to eventually sight and photograph it. Thus, in 2001 it was confirmed that the owl appeared strikingly different from any other on the island or, indeed, anywhere in South Asia (4). This owl is small, short-tailed, uniformly reddish-brown, with eye-colour ranging from yellow to orange, but more orange in males (2). The bird lacks apparent ear-tufts present in most other species of scops-owl (Otus), its facial disc is only weekly defined, and only the very top parts of the lower leg are feathered (2). The owl roosts near the ground, where its colouration, size and shape camouflage it well amongst the dry and dead leaves (3).

Endemic to Sri Lanka, found thus far only in the southwest quarter of the island (2) at Kitulgala, Kanneliya and Eratna-Gilimale Reserves, with its strongholds in the Sinharaja and Morapitiya-Runakanda reserves, which are contiguous (3).

Found in large tracts of lowland rainforest, within an altitudinal range of 30 to 530 metres (2).

Essentially a nocturnal bird of secretive habits that are little understood, with much inferred from vocalisation patterns. Vocalisation begins at dusk but the bird does not leave its roost to feed until darkness falls. During the first two hours of darkness the owl hunts in the undergrowth for beetles and moths, exploiting this time when there is no competition from other nocturnal birds, later moving to higher levels for the same prey. Vocal activity peaks again before dawn. Roosting near the ground, mated pairs appear to maintain territories year-round, and roost either together or apart (2) (6).

By the end of January 2006, about 80 Serendib scops-owls were known to exist (6). Since the species has such a small population, and restricted range of just 230 square kilometres, the owl has been officially classified on the IUCN Red List as Endangered (2) (5). These are both declining due to habitat loss and degradation (3).

The Serendib scops-owl is found in five protected areas, each administered as a Forest Reserve or a Proposed Reserve by the Forest Department of Sri Lanka (2). However, further population surveys are required to better understand the abundance and distribution of this species, which for so long managed to elude detection in its forest home. Such studies would help guide effective conservation measures in the future to ensure that this mysterious owl, whose incredible discovery is a testament to one man’s perseverance and dedication, is never lost again.

For further information on this species see:

Authenticated (20/01/2006) by Deepal Warakagoda, Ornithologist, Ceylon Bird Club, discoverer of the Serendib Scops-owl, Research Associate of the Global Owl Project.

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)