How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
The Peregrine Fund has been working for many years to protect and study the Madagascar Red Owl. Today, we have a full-blown conservation program in Madagascar which includes studying endangered and poorly known Malagasy raptors, developing local and national capacity in biodiversity conservation, and increasing the size of Madagascar's Protected Areas System. A very exciting success came in 2015 when, after years of working with local communities and government, three new areas were give status as "National Protected Areas." This victory has increased protected habitat by 190,000 hectares and will provide protection for an untold number of endangered species.
Where it Lives
As you may have guessed, the Madagascar Red Owl lives in the island nation of Madagascar, located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. Just like the Ridgway's Hawk, which is endemic to Hispaniola, or the Anjouan Scops Owl, which is found only on the island of Anjouan in the Comoro Islands, the Madagascar Red Owl is found only in Madagascar, and no where else on earth!
This medium-sized owl loves to spend time in a variety of different habitats - including rainforests, dry deciduous tropical forests, forest edges, secondary degraded forests, and open landscapes such as rice fields, and banana plantations.
It can be found from sea level to areas at around 2,000 m.
What it Does
The name, Madagascar Red Owl, not only provides clues as to where this beautiful owl lives (Madagascar), but it also gives a big hint about its coloration. If you were to see a Madagascar Red Owl, you might notice that it is strikingly similar to the more common Barn Owl - which is found on every continent of the world except Antarctica. They are similar in appearance because both species belong to the same family - Tytonidae. One of the most obvious differences between the two is the overall orange/red-colored blush to the Madagascar Red Owl's feathers. It is mottled with dark splotches on its back, wings, tail and breast. The Madagascar Red Owl has dark eyes, with a pale bill. Its facial disc is a pale cream color outlined in brown.
Throughout history, in many parts of the world, the Barn Owl has, unflatteringly, been compared to a witch and has been believed to be a harbinger of death. While these beliefs, of course, are untrue, scientists have often wondered how these superstitions came to be. One reason might be because of the hissing, screeching call of most owls in the Tytonidae family - including the Madagscar Red Owl. While this owl - and all Tytonidae owls - are truly beautiful, their vocalizations can leave a lot to be desired to the untrained ear. However, just like all vocalizations and calls, the hissing, screeching call of the Madagascar Red Owl serves a very important purpose. Vocalizations are used to communicate with mates, to mark territory and to sound the alarm when danger is near.
The Madagascar Red Owl is strictly nocturnal - meaning it is only active at night, and spends its days sleeping and resting, often out of sight. They often roost in dense foliage (under bromeliads and inside hollow trees and tree cavities), which certainly helps keep the owl well-hidden. But researchers believe the Madagascar Red Owl's choice of roost site might also have to do with the weather! The large leaves can act like umbrellas - keeping the owl dry in times of heavy rainfall.
Why it Needs our Help
The Madagascar Red Owl is classified by the IUCN only as Vulnerable - meaning populations could be in danger from ongoing and future threats. Perhaps its biggest threat is loss of/alteration of its habitat via slash and burn or logging (to create agricultural fields or for the sale of timber), human expansion, and climate change.
Because this owl's distribution is limited to one island, this makes it more vulnerable to habitat loss. After all, once its home is destroyed, there really isn't anywhere else for it to go.
What it Eats
Like most owls in the Tytonidea family, the Madagascar Red Owl is a farmer's best friend. Now, when you think of owls and humans being best friends, you might imagine something out of a Harry Potter novel. However, you won't find a Madagascar Red Owl inviting a farmer over for tea and biscuits, or lending an ear when the farmer needs to talk, or even delivering the farmer's mail. So, why are Madagascar Red Owls true farmer's friends? Quite simply - because of what they eat. The Madagascar Red Owl loves to eat rodents (mice, rats, etc.). In doing so, it helps keep rodent populations down, which means farmers don't have to worry as much about rats or mice destroying their crops. It is a win-win situation. The Madagascar Red Owl may also feed on insects (another bonus to farmers!), and frogs.
Owl pellets (balls of fur, bones, claws and other materials the owl cannot digest, and thus regurgitates) provide very important clues as to what an owl is eating. By dissecting these pellets, scientists can learn a lot about an owl's most recent meal (or meals). In the case of the Madagascar Red Owl, Peregrine Fund scientists identified a number of species on this owl's menu, including: Talazac's Shrew Tenrec, Webb's Tufted-tailed Rat, Lesser Tufted-tailed Rat, and Black Rat. Madagascar Red Owls also feed on some extremely small nocturnal lemurs called mouse lemurs, and leaf-tailed geckos.
The Madagascar Red Owl most often hunts in open areas, such as rice paddies, cattle pastures, in slash-and-burn areas (known as tavies, in Madagascar) and along edges, including fence lines, in order to more easily see and capture its prey.
Nest, Eggs, and Young
Sadly, very little is known about the breeding habits of the Madagascar Red Owl. But, here is what we do know. It doesn't build its own nest, but prefers to find holes or cavities in trees in which to lay its eggs.
We also know that the Madagascar Red Owl can lay up to at least 2 eggs, but likely more. The young will stay in the nest for over two months before they are ready to fledge, or fly for the first time. At this point, their plumage is similar to that of the adults. They will spend about four more months in their parents' territory learning to hunt, avoid danger, and generally take care of themselves.
Madagascar Red Owl and The World Center for Birds of Prey
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. Interactive exhibits, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets to quizzes to costumes are all available. Owls are included among the ambassador birds at the visitor center, providing visitors with a wonderful opportunity to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. One of our avian ambassadors is a Milky Eagle Owl. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration. Our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Madagascar Red Owl, or any other species of raptor.
Bruce, M.D., G. M. Kirwan, and J. S. Marks (2020). Red Owl (Tyto soumagnei), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.marowl1.01