Species profile

Rufous Owl

Rufous Owl

Photo courtesy of Eric Sohn Joo Tan

Range and abundance

The Rufous Owl is Australia’s only exclusively tropical owl; it also occurs in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It is considered uncommon to rare across northern Australia including Arnhemland, the northern Kimberley and eastern Cape York Peninsula. There are three subspecies recognised – subspecies rufa in the northern Kimberley and Top End, subspecies meesi across the top of Cape York Peninsula and subspecies queenslandica from Cooktown south to Mackay.


The Rufous Owl is a large robust hawk owl, reaching 55 cm in length and weighing around a kilogram. It is only slightly smaller than its southern relative, the Powerful Owl. Birds have a strong rufous colouration and greenish-yellow eyes in indistinct facial mask. The upperparts are very closely barred dark rufous-brown, on a buff background, while the underparts have a more whitish background. Juveniles have very distinctive pure white head and underparts except for distinct dark facial discs.

The call is a soft deep double hoot, similar to the related Powerful Owl, but somewhat higher pitched and less penetrating.


Rufous Owls generally roost in thick vegetation during the day, emerging after dark to hunt. They feed on a range of arboreal mammals including possums, flying-foxes, gliders, bandicoots and tree-rats. Birds have also been recorded as prey items. They take prey in various ways: from perches, from tree foliage, in flight or from the ground or water.

In Australia, Rufous Owls breed during the dry season. Eggs are typically laid in a nest located high in the trunks of trees to protect young from ground-dwelling predators. The male owl selects the nest and the female will lay one to two eggs inside. Once hatched, the young owls are dependent on their parents for many months, often until the following breeding season. The adult males and females will both aggressively defend their nests against predators and intruders while the young still reside inside.


Rufous Owls are vulnerable to loss of habitat, and to late dry season wildfires which threaten habitat and the abundance of favoured prey species.

What is AWC doing?

AWC implements prescribed burning on Piccaninny Plains, Brooklyn and Mount Zero-Taravale to reduce the frequency of destructive late dry season fires which cause damage to Rufous Owl habitat.

Did you know:

Mating pairs of Rufous Owls roost side by side and “converse” softly with each other. The male preens the nape of the female's neck while she picks at his toes with her bill. Nice.