Australian Masked Owls, also known as Mouse Owls, are one of Australia’s largest owl species. Their wing length averages from 290-358mm, and their average weight varies from 290-673g. Females are typically larger than their male counterparts. This species is generally larger, darker, longer-legged, and more heavily spotted than the Barn Owl, for which it is commonly mistaken. It also boasts a louder, raspier cry than the Barn owl as well.
Australian Masked Owls are valuable natural predators that contribute heavily to keeping pest populations under control. Just as all owls are, this species is a bird of prey. Their diet specifically includes rodents, small dasyurids, possums, bandicoots, rabbits, bats, birds, reptiles and insects. These amazing predators are capable of successfully hunting prey found on the ground, in trees, or midflight. Their large facial disc funnels the tiniest sounds to the owl’s ears like a satellite, which aids the owl in locating prey regardless of size or location.
The Australian Masked Owl is a native bird and can be found mostly throughout a large coastal band typically less than 300 km inland around the majority of mainland Australia, the lowlands of southern New Guinea including the Daru Islands, and throughout the majority of Tasmania. The Masked Owl’s habitat can include forests, woodlands, timbered waterways and open country on the fringe of these areas. They nest and roost in tree hollows mostly, although they sometimes can be found in caves or other recesses and additionally require adequate territory in which to hunt.
These owls are extremely territorial and are notoriously difficult to relocate. Their territories are also quite large, with home-ranges varying from 500 to 1000 hectares per breeding pair. This, in part, contributes to the species’ declining numbers in the wild. The species has been known to stay within their territory and starve if conditions deteriorate rather than find new territory to inhabit. This poses a significant problem for young owls as it can be hard for them to establish a new territory to call their own. This has led to many young owls being unable to flourish and dying before they reach maturity. The species also has to contend with other nocturnal birds of prey for available prey and nesting sites. Significant habitat loss has been attributed to climate change, land clearing due to agriculture or modern development projects, aggressive deforestation, and fire regime changes.
These changes have also severely hampered these birds from achieving a strong natural population. The birds also suffer from efforts to control the rodent population and have been victims of poisoning due to rodenticides. They also face all the typical dangers any species faces as a result of close inhabitation with humans and are often found hit by cars as well. The species also faces a unique problem when it comes to breeding. These birds do not experience a typical breeding season. Instead, their breeding is dependent upon food and nesting availability. Even in the most favorable conditions, this species only experiences a breeding cycle up to two times a year with only 2-3 eggs per breeding pair. When habitat loss or prey unavailability is considerable enough, the birds won’t be able to breed at all. This has hampered their numbers in the wild considerably. As a result, the Australian Masked Owl has been listed as a threatened bird in Australia, with several states giving this species special conservation status.
Conservation efforts to protect this species include protecting mature forested land where nesting sites and prey are readily available. There have even been specific recovery efforts made for this particular species through the Saving Our Species Program, which seeks to secure the species’ current habitats and hopes to see its’ geographic range extended or at least maintained. Currently, 28% of the species’ total distribution occurs within reserved lands like National Parks or Wildlife Service estates. Conservators also provide supplementary nest boxes and/or recovered hollows from cleared or felled trees to provide adequate nesting sites. There are also education efforts made with individual landowners and property managers to protect certain areas known to include proper nesting sites or known territories of these birds and to decrease the use of rodenticides that pose a known threat to this species.