Southern boobook

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Southern boobook
Boobook (7126975261).jpg
Southern boobook,
Downfall Creek Reserve, Brisbane
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Ninox
Species: N. boobook
Binomial name
Ninox boobook
Latham, 1801

Strix boobook Latham
Athene marmorata Gould

The southern boobook (Ninox boobook) is a species of owl native to mainland Australia, southern New Guinea, Timor and the Sunda Islands. It was considered to be the same species (conspecific) as the morepork of New Zealand until 1999. Birds from Tasmania belong to a taxon, leucopsis which appear to be more closely related to (and hence treated as a subspecies of) the New Zealand species. Eleven subspecies are recognized. This bird is the smallest owl on the Australian mainland and is the continent's most widely distributed and common owl. It is predominantly brown in plumage with grey-green or yellow-green eyes. It feeds on insects and small vertebrates.


English ornithologist John Latham described the boobook owl as Strix boobook in 1801,[2] taking its species epithet from a local Aboriginal word for the bird.[3] John Gould described Athene marmorata in 1846 from a specimen in South Australia;[4] this is now regarded as a synonym.[3] In his 1865 Handbook to the Birds of Australia, Gould recognised three species, all of which he placed in the genus Spiloglaux: S. marmoratus from South Australia, S. boobook, which is widespread across the continent and Tasmania, and S. maculatus from southeastern Australia and Tasmania.[5]

The common name comes from the two-tone call of the bird, and has also been transcribed as "mopoke".[6] George Caley had recorded the native name as buck-buck during the earliest days of the colony, and reporting that early settlers had called it cuckoo owl as its call was reminiscent of the common cuckoo. However, he added, "The settlers in New South Wales are led away by the idea that everything is the reverse in that country to what it is in England; and the Cuckoo, as they call this bird, singing by night, is one of the instances they point out." Gould recorded local aboriginal names: Goor-goor-da (Western Australia), Mel-in-de-ye (Port Essington), and Koor-koo (South Australia).[5] Alternative common names include spotted owl and brown owl.[6]

Both Gerlof Fokko Mees and Ernst Mayr regarded the taxonomy of the boobook owl as extremely challenging,[7] the latter remarking that it was "one of the most difficult problems I have ever encountered".[8]

In a 1998 paper, Janette Norman and colleagues tested the cytochrome b DNA of three subspecies (as well as the powerful and rufous owls) to ascertain whether the closest relative was used in breeding with the last surviving female of the Norfolk boobook. They discovered that although the Norfolk boobook is similar in plumage to the Tasmanian boobook, that it is genetically much closer to the New Zealand morepork. In fact, the two are so close genetically that they considered whether the Norfolk boobook should be recognised as a separate taxon at all, though conceded they are easily distinguishable in appearance and so maintained the three as subspecies; the Tasmanian boobook only diverged by 2.7% from the other two, while the powerful and rufous owls diverged by 4.4% from each other.[9] Leading from this, the southern boobook was split from the Tasmanian boobook and morepork in volume 5 of the Handbook of the Birds of the World in 1999; however, several authors, including Les Christidis and Walter Boles, contended that the data from the Norman study, which had not sampled any Australian mainland boobooks at all, had been misinterpreted. They treated the three taxa (southern plus Tasmanian boobooks and moreporks) as a single species.[10]

Examining both morphological and genetic (cytochrome b) characters, Michael Wink and colleagues concluded that the southern boobook is distinct from the morepork and Tasmanian boobook (which should be raised to species status as Ninox leucopsis), and that it is instead the sister taxon to the barking owl (N. connivens).[11]


Eleven subspecies are recognised:

  • Ninox boobook boobook, the nominate subspecies, is found on the Australian mainland, from Southern Queensland, through New South Wales and Victoria into South Australia.[12]
  • Ninox boobook halmaturina is found on Kangaroo Island. It is sometimes included in the nominate subspecies.[12] It has dark brown underparts with reddish-brown rather than white markings.[7]
  • Ninox boobook rotiensis is found on Rote Island in the Lesser Sunda Islands.[12]
  • Ninox boobook fusca is found on Timor, Roma and Leti Islands in the eastern Lesser Sunda Islands. It has a more grey-brown plumage with no red tinge, unlike other subspecies.[12]
  • Ninox boobook moae is found on Moa, Leti and Romang Islands in the Lesser Sunda Islands.[12]
  • Ninox boobook plesseni is known only from a single specimen from Alor Island in the eastern Lesser Sunda Islands.[12]
  • Ninox boobook cinnamomina is found on Tepa and Babar Islands in the eastern Lesser Sunda Islands.[12]
  • Ninox boobook pusilla is from southern lowlands New Guinea.[12]
  • Ninox boobook remigialis is found on the Kai Islands in the Lesser Sunda Islands.[12]
Subspecies ocellata, Central Australia
  • Ninox boobook ocellata is found across northern Australia, Western Australia and western South Australia, as well as Savu near Timor. It is generally lighter-coloured than other mainland boobooks, though occasional dark-plumaged individuals are seen.[12] Birds from Melville Island are small and generally dark, and were previously classified as a separate subspecies melvillensis. Birds from southwestern Australia north to Tantabiddy on the North West Cape and Glen Florrie on the Ashburton River are relatively dark with more uniform rufous-brown underparts. Mees classified them as a separate subspecies rufigaster.[7] Mayr classified the lightest birds of northern Australia as arida, medium toned birds as mixta and darker ones macgillivrayi.[8] All these taxa are regarded as ocellata.[12]
  • Ninox boobook lurida, also known as the red boobook, is from north Queensland, and sometimes considered a separate species.[12] It is small and dark compared to other subspecies, with a reddish tinge and few spots on its upperparts, and many spots on its underparts.[13]


Roosting boobook in Melbourne

The smallest owl on the Australian mainland,[14] the southern boobook is 27–36 cm long. The nominate subspecies is the largest.[12] Southern boobooks on the Australian mainland follow Bergmann's rule, in that birds from more southerly parts of the range tend to be larger. Thus birds from the Canberra region weigh around 300 g while those from Cape York and Broome are around 200 g. However, the Tasmanian boobook and New Zealand morepork are also small.[14]

The southern boobook has generally brown head and upperparts, with white markings on the scapulars and spots on the wings. Its head lacks tufts common in other owls, and has a paler facial disk with darker feathers behind the eyes.[12] The female tends to be more prominently streaked than the male overall, though this is inconsistent and there is wide variation.[13] The eyes have been described as grey-green,[14] green-yellow, or even light hazel,[12] distinct from the Tasmanian and New Zealand species that have golden eyes.[14] The underparts are paler, ranging from buff to cream, and are streaked with brown. The overall colour is variable and does not appear to correspond to subspecies or region.[12] In northern and central Australia, Mayr found that the colour of the plumage appears to correlate with the rainfall or humidity, paler birds being found in three disjunct areas, each around 1,600 kilometres (990 mi) away from the other two: the western Kimberley and Pilbara, Sedan on the Cloncurry River, and around Ooldea, with darker birds found on Cape York and Melville Island.[8]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The southern boobook is found across Australia, although is scarce in more arid regions such as western New South Wales, southwestern and western Queensland, much of south Australia away from the coast and interior Western Australia and Northern Territory. In dryer areas it is generally found along watercourses such as the Darling and Paroo Rivers, and Lake Eyre Drainage Basin. It is found on numerous offshore islands such as Groote Eylandt, Melville Island, Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria and many islands off eastern Australia.[15] It is found in southern New Guinea, Roti, Timor and surrounding islands in Indonesia. It is found in a wide range of habitats, from forest and open woodland to scrubland and semi-desert areas. In Australia it resides in mainly Eucalypt forests. It has adapted to landscapes altered by human activity and is found in farmland and suburban areas as long as there are some scattered trees.[12]


The southern boobook generally preys on insects, particularly nocturnal beetles and moths, mice, and birds the size of a house sparrow. A higher proportion of its diet is invertebrates compared with other Australian owls.[12] Fieldwork in the vicinity of Canberra found that vertebrates made up more of the diet in autumn and winter.[16] A study in Victoria found that larger animals were eaten, including Baillon's crake, common ringtail possum and feral rabbit.[17] It uses a fence, branch or telegraph pole as a perch or vantage point to hunt from.[12]


The southern boobook nests in holes in trees between one and twenty metres above the ground.[12]


The Southern Boobook is a nocturnal species. It is mainly solitary but it does have calls to other birds of its species. It is territorial and does not move habitats very often in its lifetime.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2014). "Ninox boobook". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 2014-08-24. 
  2. ^ Latham, John (1801). Supplementum Indicis Ornithologici, sive Systematis Ornithologiae. London: G. Leigh, J. & S. Sotheby. p. xv. 
  3. ^ a b Australian Biological Resources Study (14 May 2013). "Species Ninox (Ninox) boobook (Latham, 1801)". Australian Faunal Directory. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Australian Government. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  4. ^ Gould, John (1846). "Descriptions of eleven new species of Australian birds". Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London: 18–21. 
  5. ^ a b Gould, John (1865). Handbook to The birds of Australia. London, United Kingdom: self. pp. 73–76. 
  6. ^ a b Gray, Jeannie; Fraser, Ian (2013). Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Csiro Publishing. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-643-10471-6. 
  7. ^ a b c Mees, Gerlof Fokko (1964). "A revision of the Australian owls (Strigidae and Tytonidae)". Zoologische Verhandelingen. 65: 3–62. 
  8. ^ a b c Mayr, Ernst (1943). "Notes on Australian Birds (II)". Emu. 43 (1): 3–17. doi:10.1071/MU943003. 
  9. ^ Norman, Janette; Olsen, Penny; Christidis, Les (1998). "Molecular genetics confirms taxonomic affinities of the endangered Norfolk Island Bookbook Owl Ninox novaeseelandiae undulata". Biological Conservation. 86 (1): 33–36. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(98)00012-3. 
  10. ^ Christidis, Les; Boles, Walter (2008). Systematics and taxonomy of Australian birds. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-643-06511-6. 
  11. ^ Michael Wink; Petra Heidrich; Hedi Sauer-Gürth; Abdel-Aziz Elsayed & Javier Gonzalez (2008). "Molecular phylogeny and systematics of owls (Strigiformes)". In König, Claus & Weick, Friedhelm. Owls of the World (2nd ed.). A&C Black. pp. 42–63. ISBN 9781408108840. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t König, Claus; Weick, Friedhelm; Becking, Jan-Hendrik (2009). Owls of the World. Helm Identification Guides. A&C Black. pp. 457–59. ISBN 9781408108840. 
  13. ^ a b Higgins 1999, p. 853.
  14. ^ a b c d Olsen, Jerry (2011). "What is a Southern Boobook?". Australian High Country Owls. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO. pp. 15–17. ISBN 9780643104112. 
  15. ^ Higgins 1999, p. 855.
  16. ^ Trost, Susan; Olsen, Jerry; Rose, A.B.; Debus, S.J.S. (2008). "Winter Diet of Southern Boobooks Ninox novaeseelandiae in Canberra 1997-2005" (PDF). Corella. 32 (3/4): 66–70. 
  17. ^ McNabb, Edward G. (2002). Ian Newton; Rodney Kavanagh; Jerry Olsen; Iain Taylor, eds. Ecology and Conservation of Owls. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO. pp. 192–98. ISBN 9780643098879. 

Cited texts[edit]

  • Higgins, P.J. (1999). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume 4: Parrots to Dollarbird. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-553071-3. 

External links[edit]