By Michelle Werts

One of my very first “science” reports back in elementary school was on the snowy owl. Years later, that same school system would introduce me to dissection via an owl pellet — much, much better in my estimation than the cliché of a frog. Through these formative school experiences, I’ve always had a soft spot for owls, so when news broke last week about the discovery of two new owl species — made by an assistant professor at my alma mater no less! — I immediately wanted to learn more.

Top left: Cebu hawk-owl. Bottom right: Camiguin hawk-owl
Top left: Cebu hawk-owl. Bottom right: Camiguin hawk-owl. Credit: Oriental Bird Club, original painting by John Gale

In a paper in the current issue of Forktail, Journal of Asian Ornithology, researchers revealed that two owls long thought to be simple subspecies of Ninox hawk-owls are actually species in their own right. What caused this breakthrough? Bird song.

According to the paper’s lead author Pam Rasmussen, a Michigan State University assistant professor of zoology, in a release about the breakthrough, “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. 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 first of these new owls is named the Camiguin hawk-owl, after the island where it’s found: Camiguin Sur in the Philippines. An interesting, distinctive characteristic of this owl — besides its song, of course — is its blue-gray eyes, as it’s the only known owl species to have eyes that color. The second new species is actually an owl long thought to be extinct: the Cebu hawk-owl, named after the Philippine forests it calls home. Before its vocalizations were studied, scientists simply thought the Cebu hawk-owl was a subspecies of another hawk-owl.

If you’re curious about what these unique bird songs sound like, Michigan State’s Avian Vocalizations Center has them available for a listen. Who knew that a hoot could be so informative?