The Blakiston’s Fish Owl! What the hell is that? Most people have probably never heard of it and until a few days ago neither had I, turns out it’s only the largest species of owl on the planet. Bubo blakistoni has a wingspan of up to 1.9 metres and females can weigh up to 4.6 kilograms – the Eurasian Eagle Owl has some overlap but is on average roundly beaten by this behemoth of an owl. It is such a bulky bird, often seen on the ground, that people apparently mistake it for a man or a Lynx or some mysterious creature. Sadly this impressive specimen of bird-kind is on the endangered list, much like the Amur Tiger with which it shares the Russian forests.
So I first heard about this owl when I read a recent newspaper article all about it and one of the guys trying to study and protect it. What struck me most about this bird is that despite its size, beauty, endangered status and the impressive landscape it lives in, it is very poorly known to the public. As I am sure you know publicity can make all the difference when it comes to conserving a species – funding for research and protection can be readily found when a species people love is on the brink.
I wanted to write this post as a small effort to increase the awareness of this remarkable bird, particularly as regards the threats it faces. Talking of which; loss of habitat is unsurprisingly top of the list AGAIN – logging of the old-growth Taiga forests in which Blakiston’s Fish Owl lives is a major problem. A side effect of which is the creation of many roads into the forests which increases access for hunters and locals who directly and indirectly kill the owls through hunting, car-collision and salmon fishing; which reduces the owls main prey and risks them drowning in the fish nets.
Dam building, urban development and agricultural spread throughout Russia is also reducing the available habitat. This bird may have a wide range through far-eastern Russia, China and into Japan but it is thinly spread and requires a specific habitat to survive. Such a large owl needs huge hollow tree cavities to breed in, something only found in ancient forest, they also need a nearby river which either flows fast enough to not freeze over in winter or is warmed by hot springs – without flowing water it cannot catch the fish it relies upon.
As for the bird itself, it hunts fish by wading in the river or perching on the bank, waiting to spot the flick of a trouts tail – though it also feeds regularly on frogs and rodents. It usually has a clutch of 2-3 eggs which are laid in mid-march and the young leave the nest after 40 days or so. The owl has huge yellow eyes set in a hawkish face that lacks the strong facial disc seen in other species that hunt small mammals, it also has large ear tufts that are swept sideways and back giving it a rather flat-headed appearance. It has entirely feathered legs, presumably for insulation in the freezing rivers of the taiga, and flipping massive curved claws for clutching slippery salmon. It is very closely related to the Eagle Owl, more so than to other fish-owls, and shares a similar plumage and structure to it.
Pleasingly, it would seem that the protection and conservation measures put in place for tigers in the region is also helping out the Blakiston’s Fish Owl – reduced access, protected zones etc. all benefit the owl in turn. In Japan nest boxes have been installed and have been successful in helping to increase the small, isolated population there. But it would seem that only so much can be done with so little resources and awareness – education is needed to reduce hunting and the harm done by exploitative fishing. Without the worldwide public behind the species it is likely to be difficult to get legal protection or funding for the small teams currently working with the owl. It may not be a tiger, but it is the biggest owl on Earth – its loss would be terrible indeed.