Super rare owl species rediscovered in Malaysia after 125 years



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When it comes to bird species, it can honestly be said that they are difficult to follow, no matter what caliber of your bird watching. Even more so if the last time a certain species was spotted was over a century ago.

Often rare species are discovered by chance, never with real intent. But that’s what makes their discovery so exciting in the first place. And perhaps one of the best places to go in search of our unique feathered friends is in the lush, mountainous rainforests of Borneo, twice the age of the Amazon at 130 million years old.

A recent study published in April 2021 reveals the rediscovery of Borneon Rajah’s Screech Owl, last seen in the wild in 1892.

In the study published in The Wilson Journal of OrnithologySmithsonian Migratory Bird Center ecologist Andy Boyce reports evidence for the existence of the Borneon subspecies, scientifically known as Otus brookii brookii, in the rainforests of Sabah, Malaysia. Specifically, near Mount Kinabalu.

In 2009, Boyce joined a team of researchers on a decade-long project that involved birdwatching and searching for nests around Kinabalu Park in Sabah. While in the long-term project, the avian ecologist stumbled upon the Rajah’s Screech Owl in May 2016 after a team member alerted him to a peculiar-looking bird, a species that looked completely different from the rest of the birds they had spotted. time.

There you go, a bird that was last seen over a century ago.

Otus brookii brookii. IMAGE: Andy Boyce /

“It was a pretty rapid progression of emotions when I first saw the owl – absolute shock and excitement that we found this mythical bird,” Boyce explained. “Then sheer anxiety that I had to document it as quickly as possible.”

After carefully observing the bird from a safe distance so as not to disturb it, Boyce deduced that Rajah’s Screech Owl was indeed his own unique species and needed further study.

“From the size, eye color and habitat, I knew it was Bornean Rajah’s owl,” he said. “In addition, considering the specific characters of the plumage of this bird, known speciation patterns within the genus Otus and phylogeographic patterns of mountain birds in Borneo and Sumatra, O. b. brookii is probably its own unique species and further study is needed. “

Do not mistake yourself Otus brookii brookii for its Sumatran counterpart (above), Otus brookii solokensis. IMAGE: Markus Lagerqvist

It is important to note that this species of bird is not the same as its familiar cousin, Otus brookii solokensis, which is located in Sumatra. In fact, almost all of the data available on this bird species is from the Sumatran variant, nothing significantly covers that found in Sabah.

In terms of size, the owl is a tiny creature, weighing just 100 grams (take or give), roughly the same weight as four AA batteries.

You would think that due to the elusive nature of the owl and the lack of studies on the species itself, the bird would be a priority in some sort of wildlife conservation program.

However, according to its inclusion on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is a species of “least concern”. It doesn’t really make sense, does it? After all, given that the bird has only been seen for the first time in over 100 years, one could safely assume that its population is quite low. Unless those owls are expert ninjas.

Look at those piercing orange eyes. IMAGE: Andy Boyce / re: savage

But Boyce and other researchers believe that conducting more practical studies on the bird could potentially influence its conservation status, putting it higher on the priority list. However, in order to do that, there is a lot of hard work to come. This includes collecting blood and feather samples, observing the bird at night, and recording its various vocalizations, if applicable.

There has been no other sighting of the bird since its rediscovery in 2016. But the research team also wants to consider relying on the inhabitants of the region to relay any information they may have on the bird.

Due to their proximity to the discovery site, their chances of seeing one (if at all) are much higher than those of researchers.

The Screech Owl Rajah was first described in 1892 by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, an ornithologist at the British Museum.

The bird was named after James Brooke, who at the time was the Rajah (white) of Sarawak, part of a dynastic monarchy made up of members of the British Brooke family. They ruled Sarawak from 1841 to 1946.

Experts believe the bird may not have been detected for such a long time solely because of its nightlife. So this equates to more sleepless nights for researchers concerned with raising the bird’s conservation status.

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Cover image courtesy of Andy Boyce /



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