Two new owls discovered in PH

Posted at 08/19/2012 3:17 PM | Updated as of 08/20/2012 3:09 PM

Cebu Hawk owl (top) and the Camiguin Hawk owl. Photo courtesy of Oriental Bird Club: original painting by John Gale

MANILA, Philippines -- Two new species of owls have been discovered in the Philippines, according to the Michigan State University (MSU), whose researcher played a key role in confirming the birds' existence.

The news is featured in the current issue of Forktail, the Journal of Asian Ornithology.

According to the paper's lead author Pam Rasmussen, an assistant professor of zoology at the Msu and assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the MSU Museum, the discovery took years to confirm but was well worth the effort.

"More than 15 years ago, we realized that new subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls existed in the Philippines," she said. "But it wasn't until last year that we obtained enough recordings that we could confirm that they were not just subspecies, but two new species of owls."

"Announcing the finding of a single bird is rare enough. But the discovery of two new bird species in a single paper is so rare that Rasmussen and the other researchers couldn't recall the last time it happened," the MSU said in a statement.

The first owl, the Camiguin Hawk-owl, is said to be found only in Camiguin Sur.

"At night, it gives a long solo song that builds in intensity, with a distinctive low growling tone. Pairs of owls give short barking duets that start with a growl. They also are the only owls to have blue-gray eyes," the MSU said.

The second new discovery was the Cebu Hawk-owl, which was thought to be extinct due to deforestation.

"The owls don't learn their songs, which are genetically programmed in their DNA and are used to attract mates or defend their territory; so if they're very different, they must be new species," Rasmussen said.

"When we first heard the songs of both owls, we were amazed because they were so distinctly different that we realized they were new species."

The owls have avoided recognition as distinct species for so long "because the group shows complex variation in appearance that had been poorly studied, and their songs were unknown," the MSU saod, adding that both islands are "off the beaten path" for ornithologists and birders, who usually visit the larger islands that host more bird species.

Sound recordings of both new owl species and those from other islands are available free on AVoCet, the university said.

The MSU said a team of scientists and contributors to confirm the owls' existence, which included individuals from BirdLife International, the Oriental Bird Club, Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc. and Birdtour Asia.

Additional support was also provided by National Geographic.