An easy way to find and identify a bird species is to listen for their unique calls. But Otus brookii brookii, a Bornean subspecies of the Rajah scops owl, hasn’t been observed by scientists since 1892, and its song is unknown, making it that much harder to find.
Now, for the first time in more than 125 years, researchers have documented the Rajah scops owl in a study published last month in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
In May 2016, Andy Boyce, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, carefully observed and photographed the owl in Sabah, Malaysia. Boyce was working on his Ph.D. at the time with the University of Montana, researching how different bird species behave across various elevations. In collaboration with local residents, Sabah Park officials and several individuals from indigenous communities, like the Dusun, the rediscovery took place during a 10-year study of avian evolution in the forests of Mount Kinabalu.
Boyce was safely capturing and measuring songbirds when he received a text message from Keegan Tranquillo, who is now a field biologist at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Tranquillo first spotted the bird, and quickly alerted Boyce about an odd-looking owl with orange eyes.
“Out of this dark corner where there was a lot of vegetation, this owl flew out and it landed,” says Tranquillo. While he was observing the owl, it flew away, but returned to perch in the shadowed area shortly after. “It’s a stroke of luck it came back to that exact spot.”
While Boyce was not actively looking for the owl during his research, he immediately thought of Otus brookii brookii after reading the message. Boyce rushed down a trail to where the owl perched, knowing he was on borrowed time.
“If we didn't document it right then and there, this bird could disappear again for who knows how long,” says Boyce. “It was a really rapid progression of emotion. There was nervousness and anticipation as I was trying to get there, hoping the bird would still be there. Just huge excitement, and a little bit of disbelief, when I first saw the bird and realized what it was. And then, immediately, a lot of anxiety again.”
Boyce suspects the Bornean Rajah scops owl hasn’t been seen in so long because population density is low. Researchers are not sure where the bird’s core habitat is, leaving them with little knowledge of where the owl could be found. Even if scientists knew where to look, the owl’s nocturnal tendencies likely make the animal even harder to spot. Because the bird has never been captured, researchers haven’t been able to conduct long-term observational studies or collect blood samples for genetic analysis.
“You can’t even get DNA from the bird. You can’t do genetic studies,” says Frederick Sheldon, curator of birds and biology professor at Louisiana State University, who was not involved in the study. “It’s going to be a long time before that kind of thing can be done and we can really know what’s going on.”
While trying not to disturb or frighten the owl, Boyce and other researchers meticulously photographed and documented the wondrous sight. The owl itself is about 25 percent larger than ordinary owls found in the area, according to Boyce. Though a living specimen would be useful for determining its measurements, scientists assume the scops owl weighs about 100 grams, or four ounces, based on its close relatives. Covered in grays, blacks and dark browns, this owl also differs greatly from the usual reddish tinge of more common owls in the region. Finally, its piercing, orange irises gave the bird away.
“[It] makes you wonder what’s going on here. What is the bird? Perhaps it’s an elevational migrant and it’s not usually found in this area, or it happened to be wandering around and just showed up in this spot,” says ornithologist John Mittermeier, director of the threatened species outreach at the American Bird Conservancy, who was not involved in the study.
After returning every day for almost two weeks and even visiting a few nights a week, Boyce was unable to find the owl again. It was especially challenging not being able to call the bird by its song. Standard procedure would have researchers go out at night in potential habitats to listen for its calls. Knowing the owl’s song could also play a role in helping researchers understand if the owl is a distinct species, rather than a subspecies.
Many species in Borneo are “endemic only to that island,” Boyce explains, increasing the likelihood of the owl being a distinct species. Its partner subspecies, Otus brookii solokensis, is found on the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia, but not much is known about the differences between the two subspecies.
From a conservation perspective, spotting the Otus brookii brookii means it still exists, which is a vital first step for conserving the subspecies. “We can’t conserve what we don't know exists,” says Boyce. “Species are going extinct so fast that we’re probably losing species that we never even knew existed.”
The excitement of this mystery emphasizes how anyone can contribute to new discoveries, Mittermeier says. With cell phones and new technology, many people have the capability to spot and document wildlife, as long as it’s in a safe and respectful manner.
“In this case, the team that made that discovery, they were scientific researchers, and they were doing a project. But equally, it could have just been some local birdwatchers,” says Mittermeier.
This rediscovery also serves as an empowering and humbling reminder that there are endless findings waiting to happen for those who are willing to go and look. There is power in “scientific humility,” Boyce says, in which embracing the unknown is a worthwhile endeavor rather than something to be feared.
“It reminds us as humans, and as scientists, that there are things, there are places in this world—even at this point where we have our fingerprints all over the planet—that we still just don’t have a grasp of and we're still surprised on a daily basis by things that we find,” says Boyce.