Medium-sized, dark brown with a pumpkin shaped head with small ‘ear’ tufts. The facial disc is pale buff, with a distinct dark brown rim with buff speckles. There is a dark brown area around the eyes, which are also dark brown. Its ear-tufts are earth-brown and quite small, often not visible, and set near the centre of the forehead. The tail is dark brown, barred pale buff with a whitish tip. Tarsi are feathered pale tawny-buff and toes are covered with pale buffish plumes, leaving the dark brown tips bare. Claws are blackish.
Males are generally paler then females, and there is some individual variation in tone. Length is 31–38 cm, wing length is 284–380mm, tail length is 132–186mm, and weight is 225–485g.
The Marsh owl’s habitat preference is open grassland, marshlands and short scrub, typically near marshy grounds, vleis or dams. Marsh owls prefer to nest on the ground and they have also been observed leave certain areas during drought stricken times. Their preferred habitat tends to be vulnerable to destruction due to agriculture or overgrazing.
Nesting usually occurs towards the end of the wet season or the start of the dry season. The owls are monogamous and often territorial. They may nest in loose colonies. Territories are normally 0.8–2.5 square km but may be even smaller in denser populations. Hunting areas of neighboring pairs may overlap. The nest is typically a hollow within a patch of grass, in which the grass or shrubs are pulled over to form a canopy, and the bottom is lined with dry foliage.
The female will lay between 2–6 white eggs over the course of a few days. The incubation period is 27–28 days, and during this time the female will remain on the eggs and will be fed by her partner. After hatching the chicks will remain in the nest until about 18 days. They will fully fledge at 29–35 days and be fully feathered by 70 days.
Behavior and diet
Marsh owls are typically found singly or in pairs. They are usually nocturnal however they have been recorded to be active during early morning and late afternoon.
The Marsh owl typically feeds on small rodents, insects and other small vertebrates. Prey items include mice, voles, rats, shrews, young hares, bats, birds up to the size of small ducks and doves, frogs, lizards, scorpions, beetles, and grasshoppers.
The Marsh owl has a fragmented distribution. They are common in grasslands in Southern Africa. Specifically central and southern Transval, the Free State, KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Province. They are also found in Zimbabwe, on the Mashonaland plateau, and Botswana, in the Makgadikgadi lacustrine depression in Botswana.
They have also been recorded on the floodplains on the Namibian coast and in isolated populations in Morocco and Madagascar.