30 Aug 2012

The Owl that Fell from the Sky

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 30 August 2012

Brian Gill resized

Brian Gill, curator of land vertebrates at Auckland Museum, with a seal skull which is one of thousands of specimens in the collection. (image: Auckland Museum)

owl resizedBack in 1983, a schoolgirl in south Auckland found a strange white bird in the grounds of her school. It died overnight, but it started Auckland Museum curator Brian Gill on a quest to work out how it had managed to get to New Zealand. The story of the barn owl is one of many tales collected in Brian’s latest book – The Owl that Fell from the Sky, published by Awa Press. The original specimen is also still part of the museum’s collection, as are many of the animals referred to in the stories, including several preserved geckos, collected under the spotlight of a toilet light on the tiny island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, and a number of poisonous front-fanged sea snakes that had washed up on the beach, still alive, in Manukau Harbour.

Brian Gill has looked after Auckland Museum’s land vertebrate collection - which includes more than 12,500 bird specimens, 3000 amphibians and reptiles and 1500 land mammals - for three decades now, and this book is a collection of some of his most memorable experiences. Although the particular barn owl in 1983 didn’t survive its crash landing in New Zealand, there is a happy ending to that story. In April 2008, a pair of barn owls were found breeding in Kaitaia. The birds are thought to be unassisted vagrants, most likely from Australia. If this pair manages to found a populations, it will represent the barn owl’s colonisation of one of its last unoccupied corners of the world.