A leprechaun with eyes on the back of his head.

I had threatened you with an avalanche of owls. It starts today. But it is to be a brief start. I’ve been called away on an emergency. I have to go the bush for a night. There I will be forced to spend an afternoon driving around looking at elephants and rhinos while sipping an ice-cold beer before being forced to endure yet another African sunset, while the meat sizzles over the fire and I choke down a glass of chilled white wine.

How much does this suck?

How much does this suck?

Still, I have just enough time to deal with an owl. Or rather an owlet. If you look out over a patch of the Lowveld, this is what you see.

Not quite the Amazon jungle.

Not quite the Amazon jungle.

It doesn’t look like much. But it supports a staggering amount of life. There are the sprawling herds of big game; the elephants and the buffalos, the teeming masses of buck, and the lions and the hyenas that feed on them. But there is other life here, too. Life you don’t spot as easily. The undergrowth crawls with rats and mice, mongooses and snakes, hares and lizards. Masses of them. And they, in turn, are food for owls.

Most places support one or two types of owl. The Lowveld has ten. Some, like the Pel’s Fishing Owl, are very seldom seen, but most pop up every now and then. They come in all shapes and sizes. This guy is the biggest;


He’s a Verreaux’s Eagle owl, and he’s huge. He stands over two feet tall and weighs three kilograms; the third heaviest owl in the world. But we’re not going to talk about him. We’re going to talk about a leprechaun with eyes in the back of his head.

This is a Pearl Spotted Owl. Or rather a Pearl Spotted Owlet. They changed the name to annoy me.

A proud and noble beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing hare.

A proud and fearsome beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing hare.

Noble looking beast, isn’t he. He’s a rather typical looking owl; large, dome shaped head, rounded shoulders, viciously sharp beak, large, piercing eyes, talons like meat hooks. Except for one thing. Here’s a shot of one that might give you a better perspective;

A proud and fearsome beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing grasshopper.

A proud and fearsome beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing grasshopper.

He’s tiny. He weighs in at less than 100g. But he makes up for it in attitude. He’s a very engaging little fellow indeed. Despite his diminutive size, he’s actually quite easy to find. For a start, Pearl Spotted Owls are far more active during the day than other owls. He also has a very characteristic flight pattern, making him easier to spot on the wing than most birds. And you can often tell when he’s in the area, because he does this;

Which is kind of distinctive. Unsurprisingly, for a bird that size, most of his diet is made up of insects. But don’t be fooled for a second. He hasn’t forgotten he’s an owl. He will cheerfully pounce on small rodents and lizards, and can take out birds the size of turtle-doves, which are nearly twice as big as him.

And that is just about that for the Pearl Spotted Owl. Owlet. Whatever. I have to pack for my ordeal.

Oh, I almost forgot. He really does have eyes on the back of his head. And no, I don’t mean he can turn his head right round. All owls can do that. Look at these;

Please note that I did not, at any point. describe these eyes as “Piercing”.

Please note that I did not, at any point. describe these eyes as “Piercing”.

They are there for a very good reason. He’s an owl. I said earlier that he hadn’t forgotten that. But neither have the other birds. If owls, or certainly Lowveld owls, are spotted during the day, they are mobbed mercilessly by large, mixed gangs of birds. Which must be quite annoying if you’re a Verreaux’s Eagle owl. It doesn’t happen often, though, because owls hide themselves away in deep cover during the day.

Pearl spotted owls don’t hide away though. And they do get mobbed. Which must seem a little more threatening to them than it does for the Eagle Owls, because they are smaller than most of the birds doing the mobbing. The eyes are there to fool the mobbers into thinking that he’s watching them. And he’s a fierce little bugger. It would be a very foolish songbird that tried to tackle him head on. The eye spots don’t exactly chase the mobbers away, but they do stop them from sneaking up behind him and knocking him off his perch.

And that, good people, is that. I would go on, but I need to go and find my khaki pants and a wine opener.

This entry was posted in African Wildlife, birding, birds, humor, long reads, nature, South Africa, wildlife and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A leprechaun with eyes on the back of his head.

  1. Our whole family (4 little boys plus my husband and I) crowded around the laptop and read your blog for the boys’ bedtime story tonight, and they LOVED IT.

  2. mariekeates says:

    I hope your ordeal wasn’t too painful. With all that wildlife around it might be worth painting some eyes onto the back of your head too. If nothing else it might keep the children in line 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      I’ve already convinced my four-year-old that I have eyes in the back of my head. It’s backfired, though. She won’t stop fiddling with my hair…

  3. grannyK says:

    Adorable! I love owls

  4. katechiconi says:

    Small but perfectly formed…

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