Evolution of prey holding behaviour and large male body size in Ninox owls (Strigidae)


E-mail: chris.pavey@nt.gov.au


The hawk owl genus Ninox is unique among raptorial birds in that it includes three species in which males are substantially larger than females. This is a reversal of the normal pattern observed in both diurnal and nocturnal raptorial birds in which females are larger. Interestingly, these three Ninox species also are both the largest of the 22 species in the genus and the only species that exhibit the striking behaviour of ‘prey holding’ in which large (> 600 g) mammalian or avian prey is captured at night and held with body parts intact, and draped below a roost for the entire day without being consumed. Because explanations of the evolution of large male size suggest that it results from competition among males, the adaptive significance of prey holding was studied in a wild population of powerful owl Ninox strenua. Prey holding is largely confined to breeding males and its occurrence varies significantly across the breeding cycle, being most frequent during incubation and brooding. The study did not clearly resolve whether prey holding is a form of food storage or territorial display; however, both functions can select for large male body size and therefore play a significant role in the evolution of nonreversed size dimorphism. Although female-only incubation and brooding is typical of Ninox owls and other owl species, prey holding appears to occur only in the large Ninox species because of the unique combination of large body size, large prey size, separate sex roles, and obligate cavity nesting. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 95, 284–292.