Save our owls

By: Ms Jen Cork, Michael Hugill, Category: Science, Date: 08 Jul 2011

The Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua), one of Australia's iconic birds, is currently listed as vulnerable in NSW with only 20-30 mating pairs in the Sydney region.

Powerful Owl on branch

Powerful Owl on branch
Photographer: T Churchill  © Australian Museum

In response Birds Australia has put out a call to the general public to report sightings of the Powerful Owl. They are also giving people the opportunity to volunteer as trainer-observers and gather more detailed data.

A large cause of the birds’ vulnerable status is land clearing of their natural habitat. In recent times the owls have been known to live in fragmented habitats such as farms and suburban areas - a significant change from open forest and woodland areas where the birds' main nesting location is inside tree hollows, a perfect space for females to incubate eggs and brood their young.

With all this in mind, we think it helpful to give a few hints on how to idenitify a Powerful Owl and most importantly, how to distinguish it from other owls and similar species.

Powerful Owl Identification:


  • The owl is the largest of Australia’s nocturnal birds: 50-60cm in size so when identifying the bird size is a definite factor to consider.
  • The head is relatively small and the tail is round.
  • Females are commonly smaller than the males.


  • Dark-grey to dark-brown above, white barring and off white below.
  • Distinctive dark v-shaped chevrons.
  • The eyes are yellow set in a dark grey/brown facial mask.
  • The legs are feathered with large yellow/orange feet.


  • The owl is prevalent in eastern and south-eastern Australia, mainly on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range, from south-eastern QLD to VIC.


  • The bird is a carnivore, commonly known to eat Ringtail Possums, Great Gliders and other tree-dwelling mammals, as well as rabbits and small marsupials. The bird catches prey with its feet.


  • The bird can also be distinguished by its call: a deep, double hoot “woo-hoo”, with the males' call generally deeper than the females'.

Mating and reproduction:

  • The Powerful Owl mates for life and defends an all-purpose territory. Breeding season is April to September, so in this time period it will be much more likely to sight the male bird.

So now that you’re armed with a little more information about the distinctive features of Powerful Owls, hopefully we can contribute to a great monitoring program and save one of Australians magnificent birds.

To report a sighting or volunteer as an observer, email:

For more information on the Powerful Owl go to the Museum's factsheet.


boy chutney - 5.07 PM, 25 July 2011
Martyn's article about Powerful Owls and possums (published in Explore magazine earlier this year) can be found here.
Martyn Robinson - 5.07 PM, 25 July 2011

In truth the status of the Powerful Owl Ninox strenua is largely unknown around Sydney at the moment with different experts saying it is either declining, increasing, or remaining stable in numbers. Certainly, in recent years, its numbers have increased in urban areas and there is now a breeding pair resident in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. Even the Australian Museum had one roosting each day outside one of our windows a few years back. This is why your observations and reports of Powerful Owl sightings are important to help the researchers determine the true state of the owl! For more information please have a look at the following

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