Say Hello to New Species from Philippines: Camiguin Hawk-Owl and Cebu Hawk-Owl

A multinational team of ornithologists has discovered two new species of owls in the Philippines.

The Cebu Hawk owl, left, and a pair of Camiguin Hawk owls (Christian Artuso / R. O. Hutchinson, via Rasmussen et al., Forktail)

“The discovery, which is featured in the current issue of Forktail, the Journal of Asian Ornithology, took years to confirm, but it was well worth the effort,” said lead author Dr Pam Rasmussen of the Michigan State University’s Museum.

“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 first owl, the Camiguin Hawk-owl, is found only on the small island of Camiguin Sur, close to northern Mindanao.

Artist’s rendering of the Cebu Hawk owl, left, and the Camiguin Hawk owl (© Oriental Bird Club / John Gale)

Despite being so close geographically to related owls on Mindanao, it has quite different physical characteristics and voice. 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 second discovery is the Cebu Hawk-owl. This bird was thought to be extinct, as the forests of Cebu have almost all been lost due to deforestation. But it had never been considered a distinct form. Study of its structure and vocalizations confirmed that it is a new species.

“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,” Dr Rasmussen explained. “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. Both islands are off the beaten path for ornithologists and birders, who usually visit the larger islands that host more bird species.

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Bibliographic information: Rasmussen et al. 2012. Vocal divergence and new species in the Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis complex. Forktail 28: 1–20