The Laughing Owl

Once the maniacal laugh like call of this bird rang through the night forests, then in just 40 years this call was heard no more.

However, reports persist…

The Laughing Owl
The Laughing Own (Sceloglaux albifacies)

The Laughing Owl was a moderate sized Owl 14 – 15” in height and with a wingspan of 10.4”.

It had reddish brown plumage streaked with darker brown and a white face.

The North and South Island birds were sub-species.

The birds only called while on the wing, calls were mainly heard on dark, drizzly nights or preceding rain.

The South Island birds were larger than the smaller North Island species; males were generally smaller than females.

Abundant until around 1845, within 40 years this charming little bird had disappeared.

However, the call of the Laughing Owl has been heard often since and there are those that believe it may not be so extinct as thought.

This species preferred open country for hunting, and rocky areas for shelter and the rocky areas of the Southern Alps were very much suited to its needs, as were areas of Canterbury and Otago. They showed a preference for low rainfall areas of the country.

Nelson and Fiordland were also areas favoured by these birds and remains were found on Stewart Island in 1881.

In the North Island they were said to inhabit the Ureweras, inhabiting holes in the cliffs, in the upper reaches of the ranges. They also inhabited the Hakoke Cliffs.

It fed on Lizards, insects and small birds for the plentiful fossilised pellets that have been discovered give clear indication of their diet.

It was a ground feeder with sturdy legs that preferred to run its prey down.

Nesting was generally on bare ground and in rocky crevices. The nests were made of dry grass and two white eggs were laid.

This bird was known to the Tuhoi People in Te Ureweras in the North Island.

Birds were said to be found in the Albany area near Timaru in pre-European times.

A North Island bird was collected from Mt Egmont in 1856 and Wairarapa in 1868; around this time birds were also reported from the Porirua area and Te Karaka.

Mr W.W Smith managed to breed some of these birds in captivity in February of 1882. Several fine specimens along with eggs were dispatched to Buller, along with letters describing the breeding behaviour and care.

July 1914 saw the last sighting of a Laughing Owl; a specimen was found dead at the Blue Cliffs Station in Canterbury.

The only physical proof of these birds that remained was 57 type specimens and 17 eggs in public collections (Worthy 1997).

It seemed however, the Laughing Owl was not totally through. Unconfirmed sightings of Laughing Owls came in from the North Island in 1925 and in 1927 one was supposedly heard at Lake Waikaremoana when it flew over giving a weird cry, almost maniacal in nature.

In the 1940’s a Laughing Owl was reported spotted in the Pakahi near Opotiki (Parkinson).

1950 saw a sighting at Manapouri.

In the South Island in February of 1956 eggshell fragments were found at Saddle Hill in Fiordland. The most recent hope for this species came from the Canterbury region in 1960 when what appeared to be reasonably fresh eggshell fragments were found.

Various expeditions have been mounted to try and find the Laughing Owl and the results have often been inconclusive. There have been possible calls heard and occasional pellets and egg fragments, but never any glimpse of this illusive bird.

Why these birds became extinct is somewhat of a mystery.

Their decline over 40 years has puzzled many. It is believed the invasion of Weasels, Stoats and cats may have spelt their doom. Rats were no problem to these species as they actually provided a new food source for this bird as evidenced from pellets that have been found.

Whatever the reason for their decline unconfirmed reports still continue to come from areas such as Fiordland and various areas of New Zealand. But still no photos or live birds. Perhaps in the remote areas of Fiordland the damp night sky still rings with the maniacal laugh of this enigma.

Hopefully perhaps the Laughing Owl may have not yet had the last laugh.

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