NZ Birds of Prey / Extinct / Laughing Owl
What did the Laughing owl Look and sound like?
The laughing owl, New Zealand’s only endemic owl, still existed in the wild in 1914 and may have survived until the 1930s.↑
Tantalising reports suggest there may be a small population of birds surviving in the Lewis Pass. This is however far from likely. Extinction is forever, and the opportunity to save this bird seems to have passed.
About twice the size of a morepork, the laughing owl had striking brown and white striations and a very stumpy tail. It was named after its call – a loud and 'doleful' cack cack cack, which has been described variously as the laughter of a mad man, or a peculiar barking noise like that of a small dog.
What other names did the laughing owl have? Scientists called it: Sceloglaux albifacies (white-faced owl). Māori have many names for the laughing owl including: whēkau, ruru whenua and hakoke.
Image: John Gerrard Keulemans Laughing Owl in G.D. Rowley's Ornithological Miscellany, 1875-78
Where did the Laughing owl live and breed?
They seem to have been a very widespread species occurring throughout New Zealand and across onto Stewart Island. Historically they would have been a forest species, but they were also known to inhabit open country. They nested in cavities in limestone bluffs and probably also in tree cavities where available. They appear to have taken well to captivity and there are several descriptions of pairs having laid eggs in captivity without the slightest encouragement. Sadly, the effort was never made to establish a captive population and all we can do now is wonder about what could have been.↑
Laughing owl photo: Henry Wright. This bird belonged to Walter Buller and was photographed during 1892 shortly before being shipped from New Zealand to new owner, Walter Rothschild, in England.
What did The Laughing Owl Eat?
The diet of laughing owl has been well described by looking at the remains left in old nest sites. Before the arrival of humans they preyed on native species of bird such as kiwi and duck but also had large enough feet to deal to tuatara!↑
Once humans arrived their diet changed to one that was more mammal based – sadly it seems they could not eat them quickly enough – and predation, particularly by mustelids, is thought to be the primary reason for their demise.
Image: Laughing owl photographed at its nest (a cavity under a limestone boulder) by Cuthbert and Oliver Parr - 1909 at Raincliff Station, South Canterbury, New Zealand.
What Can we learn from the story of this Unique Bird?
Once again, this story reminds us of the links in life, the unforeseen repercussions of our actions.↑
If we are to ensure the same story is not told by future generations about the spectacular birds of prey that still survive here today we must remain mindful of these lessons. To protect our birds of prey, we must first protect our environment.
Banner: H C Richter - Allport Library & Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive & Heritage Office.
Small image: J G Keulemans (1842-1912) - The Birds of New Zealand, Walter Lawry Buller.