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Silent assassins

Africa is richly endowed with owls and any safari is likely to encounter a number of species, even if many are more often heard than seen. Mike Unwin takes a closer look
Southern whitefaced owls are common in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa
RICHARD DU TOIT

The appeal of owls reaches well beyond birders. Something about these enigmatic nighttime hunters commands attention and has long cemented them in the popular imagination, from Greek mythology to Harry Potter. Our fascination is perhaps not surprising. These nocturnal birds embody the mysteries of darkness and their almost supernatural hunting skills fill us with awe. What’s more, their large, forward-facing eyes give them more of a ‘face’ than other birds — one upon which we can’t resist bestowing such human qualities as anger or surprise.

Across much of Africa, however, owls are more feared than loved. Traditional societies have long associated these birds with evil spirits.

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