The Giant Eagle Owl
The giant eagle owl, also known as Verreaux's eagle owl, apart from being a magnificent sighting in the wild and a lucky find on any game drive, has a few other feathers in its cap.
Tipping the scales at 1.6 to 2 kg, with a length of 60-66 cm and a wingspan of about 140 cm, the Eagle Owl is the largest owl in Africa. It is also the fourth heaviest and fourth longest-living owl in the world. Large and powerful, this bird is an apex predator at the top end of the food chain, with few enemies capable of taking down an adult bird.
They are not fussy eaters and will indulge in anything they can catch, and preferably carry, such as insects, squirrels, genets, mongoose, bats, rats and mice. Smaller birds, such as weavers, waxbills and even herons and bateleurs, make their way onto the menu occasionally, and eagle owls have been known to catch and kill vervet monkeys and warthog piglets. If they are unable to carry their prey, they may simply leave it where it falls and return to feed on it later, bringing their mate along for the feast. Despite this varied diet, eagle owls have a penchant for hedgehogs, which they eat by peeling aside the prickly outer skin and discarding it.
These fearsome predators, although nocturnal, prefer to hunt just after dusk and are occasionally seen to take down a meal during the late afternoon. They keep their hunting grounds separate from their daytime roosting spot, gliding silently down on their unsuspecting victims from a different perch in the evenings. Their large talons are backed up by a powerful beak which delivers the deathblow to their selected prey.
Despite all this power and hunting stealth, the eagle owl is most easily recognised by its delicate pink eyelids. Jet black eyes are framed by a typically owl-like cream coloured face outlined in black, but their bodies are a nondescript sandy-grey colour, streaked with black or charcoal and slightly darker above than below.
Although these birds are still quite prolific in Southern Africa, they are rarely seen due to their nocturnal habits and large hunting ranges, adding to their mystery and appeal. In local folklore, they are considered a powerful talisman and influence on casting spells, with particular potency attributed to the use of their body parts in magical incantations.
These birds have on occasion been spotted in the vicinity of our camps, ask your game ranger if he knows where to track one down.