Congo Bay-owl
(Phodilus prigoginei)
Only two records of this beautiful owl exist, both of which were of female birds. The male of the species is yet to be described. The type specimen was found in 1951 in the Itombwe Massif in Democratic Republic of Congo. The most recent sighting occurred in 1996 on the same mountain region, confirming that the species was not extinct. Very little is known about the Congo Bay-owl’s population size, ecology or breeding habits and this needs to be remedied before conservation efforts can begin. The main threat to this species is the clearing of habitat for small-scale agriculture by local farmers. The Itombwe Massif itself is threatened by logging, mining, wild fires and forest clearance. A plan has been developed to create core protected areas as well as zones designated for sustainable use and human development.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Further research about this species’ range, habitat preferences and ecology is essential to understand the threats the species faces.
Itombwe Massif, Democratic Republic of Congo
The male of this species has never been seen and its appearance remains a mystery.
Media from ARKive
Arkive image - Adult female congo bay-owl
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Tytonidae
The Tytonidae are more commonly known as the barn owls. They differ from the Strigidae, or true owls, by the structure of their feet and sternum, and their characteristic heart-shaped facial discs. Tytonidae is divided into two subfamilies: Tytoninae and Phodilinae. The Congo Bay-owl currently shares a genus with one other species – the Oriental Bay-owl, Phodilus badius. In 1999, it was highlighted that the Congo Bay-owl caught in 1996 possessed a heart-shaped facial disc, which was dissimilar to that of its closest relative, Phodilus badius. Indeed, the face of Phodilus prigoginei is much closer in appearance to owls of the genus Tyto. Recent studies have placed this species in the genus Tyto, however the positioning of this species is still unresolved with some biologists believing it belongs to the genus Phodilus. It may be that the Congo Bay-owl is better placed in its own monotypic genus.
The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
Weight: 195g
Phodilus prigoginei is a beautiful owl, which is a rich-chestnut brown colour. The upper parts are slightly darker in colour, with paler, more orange plumage underneath. It has large dark eyes surrounded by a compact facial disc. The wings span about 63cm and are chestnut in colour with dark brown barring. Only the female has ever been seen, so males may differ in appearance. The voice is unknown, but may consist of long, mournful whistles.
Very little is known about the ecology of this species.
Little is known about this species, but it is thought it may need a habitat mosaic of grassland and mountain or bamboo forest. In 1996, the bird was found at 1,830m in mountain gallery forest, next to patches of bush and grass. The area where it was caught was slightly degraded suggesting the species may tolerate minimal human activity.
The Congo Bay-owl is known primarily from the Itombwe Massif in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are reports that the species may inhabit the Nyungwe Forest in western Rwanda/Burundi (opposite the Itombe Massif). There was a possible sighting in 1974 and a number of cases of similar songs being recorded within the forest.
Population Estimate

BirdLife International estimates the population to be between 2,500-9,999 adults based on available habitat and densities of its close relative Phodilus badius. The actual number is likely to be towards the lower end of this range, due to species-specific ecological requirements.

Population Trend
The Congo Bay-owl has only ever been found in Itombwe. Political unrest in the area has hampered conservation efforts. The main threats for the Congo Bay-owl are forest clearance for small-scale farming. In the 1990s there was a peak in the rate of clearance, due to a maize blight, which forced local farmers to cultivate new areas of land. Live-stock grazing also puts pressure on areas of forest at higher altitudes. The Itombwe Massif area is also threatened by logging, mining, wild fires and increased levels of hunting.
Conservation Underway
This species is protected under CITES Appendix II. Surveys of other areas of similar habitat in the region, including sites such as Kibira and Nyungwe where there have been unconfirmed sightings. The Itombwe Massif is a stronghold for critical populations of gorillas and chimpanzees, so the Congo Bay-owl may benefit indirectly from conservation efforts targeting these primates. The Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF and AfriCapacity/Rainforest Foundation have been working with local communities to agree on the boundary of the Itombwe Reserve and to develop a zoning plan for the reserve. This would include core protected areas with no human activity and designated zones for development and sustainable resource use. This has been supported by USFWS, IUCN/SOS, WCS, WWF, RF, USAID and other donors.
Conservation Proposed
The Itombwe Reserve needs to be established with agreed boundaries and the zoning plan needs to be implemented in partnership with local communities and government, as a matter of urgency. Laws and regulations to limit continued habitat degradation in these areas must be strictly enforced. Further research on the Congo Bay-owl’s population size, ecology and breeding habits needs to be conducted. It is also important to investigate surrounding areas of suitable habitat to establish if the species exists elsewhere.
BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Phodilus prigoginei. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org on 02/04/2013

Butchart, S. (2007) Birds to find: a review of ‘lost’, obscure and poorly known African bird species. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 14:2.

Butynski, T. M., Agenonga, U., Ndera, B. and Hart, J. F. (1997) Rediscovery of the Congo Bay (Itombwe) Owl Phodilus prigoginei. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 4(1): 32-35

Collar, N. J.; Stuart, S. N. (1985) Threatened birds of Africa and related islands: the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book. International Council for Bird Preservation, and International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Cambridge, U.K

Omari, I., Hart, J. A., Butynski, T. M., Birnashirwa, N. R., Upoki, A., M'Keyo, Y., Bengana, F., Bashonga, M. and Baguruburnwe, N. (1999). The Itombwe Massif, Democratic Republic of Congo: biological surveys and conservation, with an emphasis on Grauer's gorilla and birds endemic to the Albertine Rift. Oryx 33: 301-322.

Plumptre, A. J., Amsini, F., Kujirakwinja, D., Hart, J., Nyembo, B., Vyahavwa, C., Bujo, F., Masanga, A., Matunguru, J., Mwinyihali, R. and Tshombe R. (2008) Itombwe Massif Conservation Project: Delimitation and zoning of the Itombwe Natural Reserve for protection of great apes. Final Report for USFWS Project.
Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by F-Dowsett Lemair and Andrew Plumptre.

if you can provide new information to update this species account or to correct any errors, please email us at info@edgeofexistence.org

Forum comments

There are as yet no comments for this species.