Owls on Campus – Yale and NUS

on December 20, 2012

For those of you who have been following the news lately, you would doubtless be aware that Yale and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have both been receiving no small amount of attention, mostly because of the collaboration between Yale and NUS over a brand new liberal arts college set to open during the next academic year.


But while most of the press coverage surrounding Yale and NUS has largely been aimed at explaining why Yale and NUS are so different as to be incompatible for one another, I want to spend some time talking about one of the striking similarities between Yale and NUS instead.

Now, if at this point you’re anticipating some sort of politically-charged, anarcho–liberal treatise or some sniveling nationalist-apologist (I see you, Jim Sleeper) piece on why Yale can learn from NUS or vice versa, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed because the similarity I want to talk about is something far less ideological.

So what’s the similarity between Yale and NUS? The answer is Owls. No highfalutin metaphorical double meaning here. By owls I actually mean the wide-eyed nocturnal birds that have become the subject of many an internet meme.


Yarly! (Source: knowyourmeme.com)

Being a birdwatcher, I happened to be wandering around the Yale campus with my binoculars and camera (as you normally would) after struggling with a particularly intractable essay. The time was approximately 4:30pm and because days get shorter as winter approaches, it was already getting dark by then. As I was walking down Hillhouse Avenue, near the Yale Economics Department, a couple of grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) suddenly broke into a frantic scamper even though there wasn’t any sort of noticeable disturbance. Curious, I decided to investigate, and that was when I saw this dark blob-like shadow about the size of a teddy bear perched on a branch midway up a tree. This was what I saw:

Barred Owl_1This bird is a Barred Owl (Strix varia) a fairly large owl that can be found all over the east coast of the United States, and there it was, sitting right there less than 10 metres away from my face! Imagine the excitement of being able to get so close to such a beautiful and majestic bird. It’s like winning the lottery AND meeting Sir David Attenborough in person at the same time!

This was a particularly exciting find because Barred Owls aren’t often sighted deep in urban areas, generally preferring to stay within forested areas and marshland. Seeing a bird of prey as large as this so deep within an urban area was quite the shock indeed.

But this wasn’t my only sighting of the Barred Owl. Two weeks after my initial sighting, the Barred Owl showed up again! This time right in the heart of the Yale campus at 2:30pm in the afternoon just outside the William L. Harkness Hall.


Because the bird was in such a conspicuous location, it naturally attracted quite a lot of attention from passers-by, many of whom would pause for a couple of minutes to admire the bird and snap a couple of pictures with their iphones.

But how does this actually relate to NUS? Coincidentally enough, NUS also has its very own urban owl. And even more coincidentally, the resident NUS owl is a closely related species to the Barred Owl of New Haven.


This owl is the Spotted Wood Owl (Strix seloputo), a similarly large and wide-eyed bird of prey that comes from the same genus as the Barred Owl – if you look at the scientific names of the two birds, you’ll notice that they share the same first name – the genus StrixStrix owls, also commonly known as ‘wood owls’, are very distinctive birds because unlike other owl species, they have rounded heads with no ‘eyebrows’. This makes them easy to distinguish in the wild because in the darkness sometimes all you’ll be able to see is a silhouette, and being able to distinguish the head shape is a very important part of identifying owl species. 


Like the Barred Owl, the Spotted Wood Owl is also more often found in wooded areas and is less commonly found hanging around in urban areas, so why these two owls would venture out into the highly urbanised campuses of Yale and NUS remains a mystery.


There are some possible explanations for this coincidental co-occurrence, though. One of the reasons why both the Yale and NUS campuses might be appealing to large Strix owls like the Barred and the Spotted Wood Owls is the prevalence of tall, old trees.

New Haven, also known as the ‘Elm City’, was one of the first cities in America to have a public tree planting programme and today many tall Elm (Ulmus spp.) and oak (Quercus spp.) trees continue to thrive in New Haven, providing an ideal habitat for Barred Owls. Likewise in NUS, the many small patches of tall Tembusu (Fagrea fragrans) and Rain Trees (Albizia saman) provide ideal roosting spots for large birds of prey like the Spotted Wood Owl.

IMG_7200Another possible explanation for the sudden appearance of large owls in the urban campuses of Yale and NUS could be the abundance of viable prey animals, especially small rodents such as squirrels and rats. Both Yale and NUS have large populations of native squirrels, the Grey Squirrel and the Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) respectively, and as with most urban areas, rats and other assorted vermin also have a strong presence in both places. This in turn provides more than ample food supply to large birds of prey like owls and might account for why these nocturnal birds might find the campus environment so attractive.


What all this points to is the importance of having mature groves of tall trees in urban areas and how this can serve as remarkably productive habitats for all manner of wild animals. While we generally think of urban areas as species depauperate landscapes dominated by only a handful of extremely abundant species, the presence of large, mature trees gives rise to a variety of microhabitats and resources that provide an avenue for animals not usually associated with urban centres to slowly establish their presence.

So there you have it, a quick introduction to a pair of charismatic birds that call the urban campuses of Yale and NUS home. If you happen to belong to either one of these two institutions, you might want to keep a look out the next time you walk through the campus in the evening. Who knows, you might just have a close encounter with one of these beautiful birds.

*Note: Unless otherwise stated, all photos are my own. Please feel free to use them for non-commercial purposes but I would greatly appreciate it if you could credit the image to me if you should use it. Thanks.


One response to “Owls on Campus – Yale and NUS

  1. a2canadian says:

    I have recently spotted a few owls around campus so it is nice to know that they aren’t exclusively stalking me.

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