Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
As you might expect from the species name, a heavily mottled plumage is a key feature of mottled owls, with dark brown upperparts, densely streaked with yellowish barring, and a mottled buffy-yellow and dark brown upper breast, which becomes gradually unmarked towards the belly.
The face is brown, with lighter buff v-shaped eyebrow markings, and some light orange-brown coloring between and below their deep brown eyes. The facial disk is ringed with buff and the bill is a yellowish-gray.
A lighter color morph also exists, with whiter markings replacing the buff shades seen in the darker morph birds.
Female and male mottled owls are alike in coloring, but there is a noticeable difference in size, with females taller and heavier than males.
Juvenile mottled owls have whitish faces and are buff-colored, with darker barring on their backs. They gain their full adult plumage by around 4 months.
Mottled Owl perching on a branch
A mid-sized owl species, the mottled owl is smaller than a barn owl and around the same size or slightly smaller than both long-eared and short-eared owls. Females are considerably larger than males in every aspect.
A series of deep croaky hoots increasing in both pitch and volume are used in defense of a territory, with the female’s cry being higher in pitch than the male's. Nesting female mottled owls are also heard making a catlike wail when asking their mate to bring them food.
The diet of mottled owls varies according to what prey is available locally and can include small mammals (fulvous rice rats and hispid cotton rats), large insects (cockroaches, grasshoppers, beetles), reptiles (snakes, lizards), tree frogs, small birds, and bats. They hunt from low perches and catch prey on the ground.
Juvenile mottled owls are brought small prey to the nest, which is then torn into smaller shreds before they attempt to eat it. Mammals including voles, shrews, and mice are initially offered, with larger items including squirrels, bats, ducklings, and rabbits introduced gradually as they grow.
At home in forested environments, including tropical rainforests, woodland scrubs, coffee and cacao plantations, and dry lowland forests, mottled owls thrive in landscapes with dense tree cover as well as regions with scattered trees, up to altitudes of around 2500 m (8200 ft).
Mottled owls are widely distributed across Central and South America, with a presence in southern Mexico. Their range extends throughout all of Central America into the Amazonian basin of South America.
To the southeast of the main range, mottled owls are present in a region that extends across northeastern Argentina, eastern Paraguay, and southeastern Brazil.
Mottled owls are resident across Central and South America and have regular and stable breeding populations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Suriname, French Guiana, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.
Within parts of their range, mottled owls are widespread and common, particularly in humid lowland forests, with the species particularly widely distributed in southern Mexico and throughout Panama. Only the vaguest population estimates exist, with Bird Life International placing the species in the range of 500,000 to 4,999,999.
Although the United States is outside of the distribution range of mottled owls, rare vagrants show up from time to time in Texas. A resident population of owls is present in Mexico’s Sierra Picacho mountain range, only around 90 km from the Texas border, so although highly slim, this region would possibly offer the greatest chance of any sightings.
Mottled owls have never been recorded in Canada, and the vast distance from their usual geographical range makes it unlikely that vagrant birds will accidentally occur there.
Portrait of a Mottled Owl hooting
Banding records for mottled owls are not widespread, making it challenging to estimate an average or maximum lifespan for this species. It is also unclear at what age mottled owls breed for the first time.
Large raptors are among the chief predators of mottled owls, including the black hawk-eagle, the crested eagle, and the collared forest falcon. Nests may be raided for eggs by mammals including hairy porcupines, margays, white-nosed coatis, and tayras.
No information is available on specific legislation that offers protection to mottled owls across their range in Central and South America.
No concerns are currently expressed for the future survival of mottled owls, and they have the lowest conservation status, rated as a species of least concern globally.
Mottled owls are known to reuse cavities excavated and later abandoned by other species, as well as naturally occurring tree hollows and artificial nest boxes. Occasionally they have been observed to take over stick nests in trees that other birds have constructed, but do not build their own nests. Leaves and bark may be added as an interior lining before eggs are laid.
Nesting varies widely according to location. In the northern extremes of their range, mottled owls lay their eggs between February and May, while further south, in Argentina, southern Brazil, and Paraguay, September to November is most usual.
Only females incubate and are brought food to the nest for the duration of their brooding time. Eggs hatch after 28 to 30 days and parental care of the young in the nest continues until they are ready to fledge after between 27 and 33 days. Once fledged, young mottled owls continue to rely on parents for support with feeding.
Mottled owls’ eggs are a dull white color, measuring 42 mm by 36 mm (1.7 in by 1.4 in). A typical clutch consists of between 1 and 3 eggs, and one brood is raised in a season.
The limited evidence we have available indicates that mottled owls do mate for life, breeding together once a year and reuniting the following spring after a renewed courtship period, where the bond is strengthened by males bringing food to females.
Pair of Mottled Owls
A highly territorial species, mottled owls will readily attack any other owls that stray too close to their nest sites or young. Despite their reputation as fearless hunters and vicious predators, there are no reports of a mottled owl ever attacking a human.
Mottled owls hunt nocturnally and roost during the daytime. Roosting spots are found in trees, with males finding an overnight perch around 250 m (820 ft) from the nest cavity while the female is incubating.
Mottled owls are sedentary and remain in the same habitats all year round.
Mottled owls are not native in the US and only scarce reports of vagrant individuals have ever been recorded, with the first verified record from 1983 when an owl discovered as roadkill in Texas was identified as the species.
Mottled owls and barred owls are visually fairly similar, although barred owls are at least 10 cm (4 in) larger. Both share a heavily patterned plumage that allows them to be well camouflaged against the forest landscapes they both inhabit.
However, barred owls are typically paler than mottled owls: their plumage is mainly light brown and white, with a marked black border to their facial disk. In contrast, mottled owls are richer shades of buffy-yellow streaked against a deep brown.
29cm to 38cm
84cm to 91cm
175g to 405g
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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