When is an owl not an owl?

When is an owl not an owl? The answer is – when it’s a tawny frogmouth. Frogmouths are not raptors, and although related to owls, they are more closely aligned with nightjars and oilbirds.

Differences between owls and frogmouths:

  • Owls catch prey with their talons; frogmouths with their beaks.
  • Because of this, the legs of owls are much stronger.
  • Owls have a unique flexible joint in one toe allowing it to move the toe around to the back and giving greater purchase on prey.
  • Owls eat small mammals and have shorter, stronger bones.
  • Owls fly around at night hunting their prey; frogmouths wait for their prey to come to them.

Tawny frogmouths belong to the Podargidae family and have the taxonomic name Podargus strigoides.

Tawny frogmouth on postCredit: V J Evans - Copyright

The ‘frogmouth’ name comes for the disproportionately large, frog-like, gaping mouth. Australians may refer to the tawny frogmouth by its colloquial names of ‘mopoke’ or ‘morepork’.

The tawny frogmouth is found throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and southern New Guinea. Birds in the southern parts of the range are much larger than those in the northern regions. They are sedentary and have a range of 20 to 80 hectares.

The tawny frogmouth occurs in most habitat types except for denser rainforests and treeless desert areas. They are common in open forest, and eucalypt and acacia woodlands.

The tawny frogmouth is well camouflaged, with its plumage blending with the colour and texture of tree bark.

Tawny FrogmouthCredit: By Peripitus (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When sitting still and upright, it is nearly impossible to distinguish them from their surroundings. The sexes are alike and 35 to 53 cm long (14 to 21 inches). They are bulky birds, weighing up to 680 grams (1.5 pounds). Some specimens in zoos may reach double this weight.

The general plumage is silver-grey, with black and rufous streaks and mottles. The underparts are slightly paler. The beak is olive grey to very dark.

The beak is wide and topped with a tuft of bristly feathers. The eyes are yellow and large, well adapted to nocturnal hunting and they have excellent hearing.

The tawny frogmouth has anisodactyl feet – three toes face forwards and one back. Because the frogmouth uses its beak to take prey, its feet are not as strong as those of owls.

Tawny frogmouths are nocturnal, roosting through the day. If the frogmouth feels threatened it relies on camouflage for protection and will stay perfectly still with the eyes nearly shut and the beak pointed straight. It often perches close to the trunk of a tree. Vocalisations include loud clacking sounds made with their beaks and a reverberating booming call.

This bird is insectivorous although it very occasionally eats frogs, snakes, birds and other small prey. Worms, slugs, snails, moths and large nocturnal insects such as spiders, cockroaches and centipedes make up the bulk of its diet.

While owls catch their prey with their talons, the tawny frogmouth uses its beak. Its normal habit is to sit and wait for prey to come to them although they sometimes drop down onto prey.

Pairs are monogamous. Breeding takes place from August to December although in more arid areas, the birds will breed following heavy rains.

Frogmouth and chicksCredit: Wikimedia

They build a loose untidy platform, 3 to 15 metres above the ground, usually on a horizontal forked tree branch. They may make repairs to the nest each year. The nest is lined with green leaves and two to three eggs are laid and incubated by both birds for around 25 days. Feeding is the responsibility of both birds too. Where food is plentiful, birds from the southern parts of the range may have two broods.

Collisions with cars are a real danger. Insects become visible in the headlights of vehicles and the frogmouth moves in for the kill. Surprisingly, quite a number survive this extreme event provided they are treated promptly. A vet may administer a corticosteroid to help treat bruising and swelling. The bird must be kept indoors in a confined, dark space in extreme quiet to counteract the effects of shock.

Another problem is the build-up of poisons in the birds. The bodies of spiders, cockroaches and other insects may contain pesticides and these are then ingested by the frogmouth and the pesticides stored in fat deposits. When the birds lose weight toward the end of winter, they make use of these fat deposits releasing toxins into the blood stream.

Such birds will present with symptoms of twitching and fitting. They may begin a loud and distressed screaming. Noise, activity and heat will aggravate the symptoms. If the symptoms are not too far advanced, charcoal tablets administered in food and the provision of large amounts of food may help but with full-on fitting and screaming, euthanasia is kindest. Luckily such cases are less common as many of the worst poisons have been removed from the commercial market.

Rescue Tips
Young frogmouths may leave the nest before they are proficient in the air. If they are not in danger from predators (cats, dogs, foxes) and not on a road, they can be safely left or lifted carefully to a low branch. The parents will continue to care for them, teaching them to hunt for food.

Tawny frogmouth - pairCredit: Wikimedia

White downy chicks should be taken into care as they are too small to survive on their own. Fledglings are more like an adult bird albeit a bit ‘fluffier’. Rescued young frogmouths are best raised in a group situation. They are placid, easy-going birds and will easily imprint on humans. While this makes it difficult to give up a chick, it is in the bird’s best interests to take it to a wildlife rescue centre where it can be with others of its kind with the eventual goal of being released back into the wild.

Rescue centres sometimes have resident frogmouths which can’t be released for various reasons and these will usually ‘adopt’ new birds and care for and nurture them.

If, for some reason, you are looking after a frogmouth, never try to provide electrolyte replacements or fluids. Fresh water should be available at all times but attempting to administer fluids can result in fluid inhalation, resulting in the bird drowning.

The conservation status of the tawny frogmouth is listed as ‘secure’ in all Australian states.