Friday, November 25, 2011

Where are all the moreporks?

Little Owl

New Zealand has few hunting birds. The only birds of prey are the extinct giant eagle, the falcon and the harrier. In addition to these we have only had four owl species. These are the morepork or ruru, the Laughing owl which is now presumed extinct, the Barn owl which is a rare visitor and the Little owl or German owl, widespread in the South Island.

Little owls are common in Invercargill. The best place is Queens Park which probably has a population of about six but there could be many more. Little owls call in the evening, the usual cry being a screech. If their roost is discovered by blackbirds there is a lot of agitation which can be a clue to their whereabouts. They feed on moths, wetas, mice and small birds and are particularly useful in controlling porina moths. Little owls nest in buildings and often inside disused farm machinery. A few years ago a pair nested in a roller door at Makarewa. You can imagine the twice daily disruption to their domestic routine.

In contrast, the morepork is a rare bird. You hear the call ‘more pork’ in the distance throughout Fiordland and elsewhere but the forest should be full of them. It is difficult to imagine what the limiting factor is. There is plenty of food, their nests in holes in trees would seen reasonably secure and they don’t have an obvious enemy. Perhaps the Little owl is out-competing the morepork or even a predator of it.

Barn Owls

Little owls are a frequent road casualty, the result of sitting on the warm road at night and flying low as they look for prey at dusk.

They are easy to tell apart. The morepork is about twice the size, it’s brown and has yellow-orange eyes. The Little owl is grey with dark spots and has lemon-yellow eyes. Little owl chicks – owlets – are one of the easiest birds to raise as pets. They eat strips of meat and can turn their heads 180 degrees. You don’t want one sitting on your head though as they have needle-sharp talons. As these talons close on a victim, they pierce the heart and ensure a quick kill.


No sign of the Laughing owl being re-discovered although there are odd reports of strange, large owls. It’s difficult to judge size in poor light and these may be moreporks. I’ve been confused with pigeons as well – silhouetted on a branch they can look like an owl. Better news with Barn owls. A few years ago they bred successfully in Northland so may slowly spread.

I gave a ride to some German hitch-hikers. “Where did you stay last night?” I asked. “Ve stayed vis ze peasants up ze road,” they said. We talked about birds. “Ve see a ool,” they said. I said I didn’t know what a ool was. “A ool, ze bird vot clasp ze mouses in ze night.”