The distribution of owls in Syria was investigated during a larger project to plot the distribution of small mammals in the country. Owl pellets were collected from 92 localities representing most of the habitats in Syria; during this work, seven species of owl were observed (Little Owl Athene noctua, Barn Owl Tyto alba, Eagle Owl Bubo bubo, Tawny Owl Strix aluco, Striated Scops Owl Otus brucei, Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops and Long-eared Owl Asio otus). Little Owl and Barn Owl were the most common owls. Owl distributions were mapped based on recent observations and published records. Threats affecting owl populations in Syria include trade for taxidermy or traditional use, secondary poisoning by insecticides and rodenticides and habitat destruction.
A number of studies reporting on the owls of Syria have been published within the last three decades (e.g. Pradel 1981, Kock & Nader 1983, Nadachowski et al. 1990, Manners & Diekmann 1996, Kock 1998, Shehab et al. 1999, 2000, Hutterer & Kock 2002, Shehab 2005, Shehab & Charabi 2005, Shehab et al. 2006). Most of these publications were devoted mainly to the systematics, distribution or species diversity of small mammal prey taken by owls, or to determine the role of owls as biological control agents on rodent pests.
The Barn Owl Tyto alba is an ideal species to study the remains of mammalian prey in owl pellets (Raczynski & Ruprecht 1974, Andrews 1990), therefore, most of the previous literature focused on this species. Few studies have been conducted on Little Owl Athene noctua — despite its wide distribution — since its diet consists mainly of arthropods (Obuch & Krištín 2004, Shehab et al. 2004). Several papers mention the presence of the Eagle Owl Bubo bubo in Syria (Obuch 2001, Shehab 2004, Shehab & Mamkhair 2004, Benda et al. 2006, Shehab et al. 2007). Obuch (2001) and Benda et al. (2006) reported on the presence of Long-eared Owl Asio otus and Tawny Owl Strix aluco. Although Baumgart et al. (1995) mentioned the presence of ten owl species from Syria, including the first report of Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops in the country, they unfortunately did not include detailed data supporting the presence of some owl species.
This study reports data on owl species recently observed in Syria and their distributions. It also highlights threats facing owls in the country and provides a foundation for national requirements on their conservation.
Fieldwork was undertaken from 1995 through 2007. During this period, the distribution of Syrian small mammals and the role of owls as biological control agents of pest species were determined. Thousands of owl pellets of several owl species were collected from 92 localities representing most Syrian habitats. The collected pellets varied in age, from fresh to very old. Many localities were visited more than once; fresh pellets were gathered at each visit, allowing an understanding of seasonal patterns of both rodents and owls. Owls were observed during daytime in historical buildings, ruins, caves, cliffs, cellars, traditional water wells and in trees. Additionally, animal markets and taxidermy shops were inspected for live or dead owls. Owls' feathers, droppings or pellets were helpful in identifying owls when they could not be observed directly. Literature data on owls in Syria were used in addition to our own data.
The Little Owl is the most common owl in Syria, with records in 55 locations throughout the country (Fig. 1, Appendix 1). The habit of the Little Owl to nest in burrows and between rocks allows for this species to extend its distribution in most of the eastern and north eastern treeless parts of Syria and it is the only owl species that is known to occur in SE Syria. It is mainly active at night, but it is commonly seen during daytime, on power lines, small hills or large rocks. It roosts in abandoned buildings, ruins, small halls or crevices in mountains or on the ground between rocks. Obuch & Krištín (2004) collected pellets of the Little Owl from 11 localities in Syria at elevations between 190–1400 m. Additionally, Shehab et al. (2004) collected pellets from seven localities, and Benda et al. (2006) mentioned the Little Owl from four localities in the Euphrates River valley and the Syrian Desert.
The Barn Owl is common in all parts of Syria, with records in 51 locations in the country (Fig. 2, Appendix 1) including most of the localities where the Little Owl has been observed, with the exception of the extreme desert conditions of the Syrian Badia. It is common along the Euphrates Valley. It roosts in abandoned buildings, ruins, high cliffs, old water wells, grain storage bins, cave entrances and trees. Pellets from Barn Owl have been collected from Crak des Chevaliers (Pradel 1981, Nadachowski et al. 1990), as well as many other localities across Syria (Obuch 2001, Shehab et al. 2004, Shehab & Charabi 2005, Shehab 2006, Benda et al. 2006, Shehab et al. 2006). The Barn Owl is suffering from illegal trade and persecution. Several specimens were found for sale (US $10–20 per owl) in a Damascus animal market. Dead owls have been found at roosts in Horns and Hama Governates after a rodent control campaign using zinc phosphide was implemented in nearby agricultural areas.
The Eagle Owl is a relatively rare owl in Syria, with only 10 records known (Fig. 3, Appendix 1). It has been recorded from seven localities in the Mediterranean zone, and from three localities in the Syrian Desert. It usually roosts on high cliffs. One live young was captured at a high cliff in Al Yarmouk River Valley in May 2000, suggesting nesting in the area. Another juvenile was captured at Dana, northern Syria (Manners & Diekmann 1996). The presence of a large number of pellets at Al Qaryateine (Shehab 2004) suggests that the Eagle Owl is a resident in that area. The Eagle Owl is suffering from the impact of illegal hunting and persecution because of local myths. Mummified specimens were observed in a shop at Musyāf. Baugmart et al. (1995) mentioned that reports from inhabitants and the regular appearance of stuffed birds in shops indicates the Eagle Owl was widespread — if only in low numbers and only locally. They also added that the mountains in western Syria, south at least to Burgush on the fringes of the Hermon massif, are inhabited by a large dark subspecies (similar to Bubo bubo bubo or Bubo bubo interpositus), and that a smaller and paler subspecies (Bubo bubo ascalaphus) inhabited the heights and river valleys in steppe and desert areas of the interior. Unfortunately, as they did not include precise coordinates for these records, we were not able to include the data in our records.
There are four records of this owl (Fig. 4, Appendix 1); the distribution seems to be restricted to the forests of the coastal region. The two reports about the presence of Tawny Owl from interior Syria (Baumgart et al. 1995) are questionable and additional verification is needed.
Striated Scops Owl
The Striated Scops Owl is a rare species in Syria, with only three records from the country (Fig. 4, Appendix 1). Clarke (1924) reported breeding evidence at Aleppo. Baumgart et al. (1995) noted a single October sighting (23 October 1986) from Tall Shekh Hamad at the Khabur. Evans (1994) reported the owl from Sabkhat al-Jabbul, Halab as a summer visitor and from the Euphrates valley as resident (based on unpublished data, compiled by Dr. I. Hanna for the ‘Important Bird Areas in the Middle East’ project); these are the only documented records for the species in Syria. Unfortunately, as no specific coordinates were given by Evans (1994) the records are not included in the distribution map of this species.
The Long-eared Owl is very rare in Syria, with only four records (Fig. 4, Appendix 1). One injured individual was observed in Damascus. The record of Long-eared owl from Dana village near Bab Al Hawa 40 km west of Halap (Manners & Diekmann 1996) was incorrect, the authors later re-identified that juvenile owl as an Eagle Owl (Guy Manners, pers. comm.).
Eurasian Scops Owl
The single record of Eurasian Scops Owl is shown in Fig. 4. By investigating the refrigerators at the animal market in Damascus (7 July 2005), one frozen specimen was found being offered for sale. The owl in the photos was identified as Eurasian Scops Owl by Dr. Mike Evans (pers. comm.). This is the first documented record of the Eurasian Scops Owl from Syria. It is worth noting that Baumgart et al. (1995) mentioned that the Scops Owl is found in Syria both in the northwest (coastal area around Ras el-Basit) and the southwest (breeding report from 26 June 1980 at Qatana; several were heard calling in the spring of 1978 and 1981 in the Damascus Ghouta). They also added that the calling males at Halbun and Slenfe required clarification. Spring passage migrants are recorded from the end of March (29 March 1994, one at the Burgush). Unfortunately Baumgart et al. (1995) did not mention precise coordinates for the locations, and therefore those records are not included in the distribution map.
The large area and diversity of natural habitats of the Syrian Arab Republic provides habitat for seven owl species. In addition to these seven owls, a survey may determine whether an eighth species, the Brown Fish Owl Bubo zeylonensis is extirpated or not. Although, Baumgart et al. (1995) mentioned the presence of ten owl species in Syria, they did not provide further details supporting the presence of Asio flammeus, Strix butleri and Asio otus.
The investigation of owl pellets offers important information on the distribution of mammals, birds and arthropods preyed upon by owls. This technique of mapping animals' distributions based on recoveries from owl pellets comes to a fore when new species are documented for the first time (Shehab et al. 1999, 2004, 2006, 2007). Investigations of mammal distribution have often relied on Barn Owl pellets — more than any other species — as it is regarded to have a wide distribution in Syria (Pradel 1981, Kock & Nader 1983, Nadachowski et al. 1990, Kock 1998, Shehab et al. 1999, 2000, Obuch 2001, Hutterer & Kock 2002, Shehab 2004, Shehab et al. 2004, Shehab 2005, Shehab & Charabi 2005, Benda et al. 2006, Shehab et al. 2006, 2007). An intensive study based on standard survey techniques should be conducted in the future, to resolve the actual distribution of the owl species.
Direct or indirect human activities are among limiting factors for the distribution of owls. The impact of pesticides and rodenticides is suspected to be high, since many owls were found dead in their roosts after local campaigns for rodent control. Many people consider owls as a symbol of pessimism due to their undesirable screeching or visits at night to rural areas. Some local people advise their children to cut off an owl's talons and then release the bird; this is thought to be a strategy to avoid their mystical harm. The Barn Owl is the species most observed in local markets, and suffers the impact of illegal trade for magical purposes, while the Eagle Owl is usually used in taxidermy due to its large size and unique appearance.
A pioneer project being conducted in northern Syria at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas seeks to encourage the breeding of resident raptors in agricultural areas by providing nest boxes in the field. In addition to this, a national program should be implemented to raise the public awareness of the role of owls in nature and to reduce the impact of local myths. Conservation plans should be designed to ensure safe nesting sites for owls and to encourage the owls' reproduction.
Many thanks are extended to Prof. Zuhair S. Amr for valuable comments on the manuscript; to Dr. Ahmet Karata_kindly draw the distribution maps, to Eng. Khaled Nakhleh and Eng. Mustafa Ozon from GIS department (GCSAR) for help in preparing distribution maps. Also many thanks to Dr. Mike Evans for identifying the Eurasian Scops Owl and for kindly sending us the unpublished data-sheets for Syrian owls as compiled by Dr I. Hanna for the ‘Important Bird Areas in the Middle East’ project. We especially acknowledge Dries Van Nieuwenhuyse for his valuable help with the Tables.
Tijdens een grootschalig onderzoek naar het voorkomen van kleine zoogdieren in Syrië werd tevens de verspreiding van uilen onderzocht. Er werden op 92 plekken braakballen van uilen verzameld. De plekken vormden samen een goede afspiegeling van de habitats in Syrië. Er werden zeven soorten uilen vastgesteld: Steenuil Athene noctua, Kerkuil Tyto alba, Oehoe Bubo bubo, Bosuil Strix aluco, Gestreepte Dwergooruil Otus brucei, Dwergooruil Otus scops en Ransuil Asio otus. De Steenuil en Kerkuil waren de meest voorkomende soorten. Op grond van recente waarnemingen en gepubliceerd materiaal wordt de verspreiding van de uilen in Syrië beschreven. De belangrijkste bedreigingen van de uilen zijn handel (om vogels op te zetten of om geneesmiddelen te brouwen), vergiftiging door landbouwbestrijdings-middelen en habitatvernietiging.