Once In A Century Shot: Rediscovering Borneo’s Rajah Scops Owl

After capturing the first-ever photographs of a Bornean Rajah scops owl, researchers hope to study the rediscovered bird in greater detail.

AsianScientist (Oct. 13, 2021) – For the first time in 125 years, the elusive Bornean Rajah scops owl was spotted in the mountain forests of Malaysia. The rediscovery was reported in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Under the largest owl genus named Otus, the Rajah scops owl only has two known subspecies, both of which are native to Southeast Asia. These brown-feathered birds are known as O. brookii brookii on the island of Borneo and O. b. solokensis on Sumatra.

But O. brookii brookii had never been documented in the wild since its discovery in the early 1890s. Over a century later, the owl’s first-ever photographs emerged when Dr. Andy Boyce from the US’ Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute caught sight of the bird nesting in the forests of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Not only was the rare sighting a confirmation of the Bornean Rajah scops owl’s existence, but it also sparked plenty more questions about how exactly it lives. As scientists couldn’t spot or study the Bornean subspecies for the past century, almost all known data about the Rajah scops owl is on the Sumatran subspecies, from vocalization patterns to population statistics.

Despite the lack of information and the rarity of the Bornean subspecies, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Rajah scops owl as a species of least concern. Given the bird’s unique plumage features and habitat, the team suggested that it may be its own unique species and crucially deserves conservation attention.

After all, the region’s archipelagic geography is already known to promote rapid speciation, with other Otus birds diversifying in the mountain forests where O. b. brookii was found. These areas are also threatened by habitat loss due to climate change and deforestation, making the owl’s conservation status all the more important to establish.

For the researchers, studying the breeding patterns and distribution will be key to filling these knowledge gaps. Through night-time surveys, they hope to record O. b. brookii’s vocalizations and collect blood or feather samples to better understand its biology and relationship with the Sumatran subspecies.

“We are only good at conserving what we know and what we name. If this rare bird is endemic only to Borneo and is its own species, conservation action is more likely,” Boyce said. “To protect this bird, we need a firm understanding of its habitat and ecology.”

The article can be found at: Card et al. (2021) Rediscovery of Rajah Scops-Owl (Otus brookii brookii) on the Island of Borneo.


Source: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute; Photo: Andy Boyce.
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