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Spotted Eagle Owl Finds Unusual Urban Nesting Area

By: Anna Taylor

Three years ago, the lives of Allan and Tracy Eccles became transformed by the arrival of a new, and very unusual, houseguest. One morning in August 2008, they awoke to discover a wild Spotted Eagle Owl sitting in a pot plant on their balcony, at their suburban home in Johannesburg. At first they thought nothing of it, believing the owl to be simply resting. Yet, later that evening, they spotted a single egg in the pot plant, and realized from that day on they would be sharing their balcony, and their lives, with the “pot plant owl”.

“We were thrilled, excited and nervous at the same time”, says Tracy. Not long after the magnificent bird came to stay, however, they realized why the pot plant owl had chosen to move in with them. The owl had been living on a wetland on the adjacent Green Belt, where it hunted for insects, rodents, birds and snakes, and nested on scrapings in the ground or in the forks of trees. Sadly, early in 2009 bulldozers moved in and began felling the trees to make room for a property development on the edge of the already sprawling city. “As much as we love the fact that owls come and nest so close to us, and we share in the wonders of the rearing of the chicks, it makes us sad to think that a wild predator has to resort to nesting in an urban environment with humans due to habitat destruction,” said Tracy. Yet Allan and Tracy were not going to sit back and watch it happen. “We immediately took action and tried to get the Government department that protects natural habitats, to step in and stop the developer. We fought and fought over it for months on end, pouring over environmental Acts and learning as much as we could. We contacted everyone we could think of to assist with our plight,” Tracy explains.

Despite this, the protests of the Eccles and various environmental agencies fell on deaf ears and, even though environmental laws were being broken, the felling continued until all the trees were gone, and the wetland was devastated.

Desperate to help their new family, the Eccles decided to harness the power of the media to draw attention to their fight. They wrote a book documenting the story of the pot plant owls, and began a petition to save the wetland. Within just a few days they had reached 27 000 signatures, and it is still gathering names today. The Eccles also put up a webcam, resulting in the owl family achieving international fame. Hundreds of viewers tune in every day on the website Africam to follow the lives of the birds, watching live hatchings and monitoring the chicks’ development.

With global support and a growing interest in the case, the petition was delivered to the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. In June this year, the courts ruled that no development was allowed on the wetland site, a very successful outcome for the owls, their legions of fans, and of course, the Eccles, who were “relieved and happy.”

The pot plant owl has laid eggs once again this year, bring the total number of eggs laid to twelve, and will continue to touch the lives and hearts of people all over the world. Yet the developer is appealing the decision, and many other species in South Africa remain under the constant threat of human encroachment, so there is no room for complacency. The story of an owl who came to live alongside humans highlights the resilience and adaptability of wildlife. It also demonstrates how resourceful people who care deeply for nature can utilize new technologies to help save local species and the habitats in which they live. To show your support for the owl family, sign the petition at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/4/save-the-wetlands/.


Click image to see photos of the Spotted Eagle Owl


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