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.
Stygian owls are remarkable for their particularly dark plumage, with a small blackish facial disk bordered by pale feathers. Their prominent dark ear tufts are an identifying feature of this species. Their wings and back are dark with lighter buff streaking. The breast and belly are pale buff, densely marked with deep black-brown barring.
The eyes are a piercing yellow, the bill is blue-black, and the legs and feet are grayish-pink.
Sexes are similar, although females are slightly larger and heavier.
Juvenile stygian owls are initially downy in appearance, and have an overall lighter gray and paler brown appearance than the dark, dusky adults of the species. Their bodies are heavily marked with dark barring, and their facial disk is less defined than in adults. The eyes of juvenile stygian owls are brownish-yellow and gradually become a clearer bright yellow with age and maturity.
Stygian Owl perched in natural habitat
Male stygian owls can be heard making a repetitive deep "whoof" with short intervals between calls. Females use a shrill “miah” scream in "miah", in response to the male. A noisy "wak-wak-wak" signals excitement, and young owlets make a “cheet” cry when hungry.
Birds form the chief element of a stygian owl’s diet, including blue-black grassquit, eared doves, and lesser nothura. Bats are also important, and frogs and insects are also eaten.
Stygian owls hunt from perches, targeting birds roosting overnight or catching bats in flight. Compared to other owl species, stygian owls are notable as their diet is not focused primarily on rodents.
Adult stygian owls bring prey to the nest, including regurgitated grasshoppers, crickets, and small birds that are torn up and fed to their young.
Stygian owls are known primarily as forest-dwelling owls, found in mountainous regions at elevations between 700 m to 3000 m (2300 ft and 10,000ft) above sea level.
Present in both tropical rainforests and both humid and semi-arid forested landscapes, stygian owls are usually absent from low-lying regions, although, in parts of Brazil and Belize, they are observed to hunt in savannah environments.
Eastern and southern Mexico forms the northern limit of the stygian owl’s usual distribution range. Scattered populations occur throughout Central America to Nicaragua. Stygian owls also have a presence in the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola.
In South America stygian owls are resident from the extreme northwest of Venezuela through eastern Colombia and central Ecuador. A small population is found in north-central Brazil, with a larger area spreading from eastern Bolivia south through eastern Paraguay, northeastern Argentina, and into southern Brazil.
Stygian owls have a discontinuous range, and have been recorded as a native species in Mexico, the South American countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, and Argentina, and in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in Central America. Stygian owls are also native to the Caribbean islands of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.
Despite having an expansive geographical distribution area, little is known about the population size or prevalence of stygian owls.
Only a handful of records exist from Venezuela and Nicaragua, while in Brazil it is thought to be more widespread and numerous. The overall population is unknown, but a wide estimate of 50,000 to 499,999 is suggested by Bird Life International.
Stygian owls are not normally resident in any part of the United States, with their northern range beginning from the state of Durango in western Mexico. However, occasional reports of vagrant individuals have been recorded in the southern US, including the first recorded sighting in Texas in 1996 at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Due to an absence of in-depth research on the behavior and ecology of stygian owls, information about their lifespan and first breeding age is unknown.
Unusually for an owl species, stygian owls are known to prey on their own species, an adaptation known as intraguild predation, which is thought to occur to eliminate competition for food resources.
Across their range, stygian owls are protected under various local conservation acts. In Mexico, they are protected under the Endangered Species Act, while in Brazil, the Brazilian Wildlife Protection Act prohibits them from being killed, captured, traded, or injured.
Little is known about the threats and impacts of habitat change on the population numbers or future survival patterns of stygian owls, other than the global population is believed to be in decline. Worldwide, they are ranked as a species of least concern.
Stygian owls do not build their own nests, instead repurposing an abandoned tree nest of another bird. Ground-level nests are occasionally used.
Stygian owls’ breeding is timed to coincide with the rainy season, and timings differ from location to location. Nests are variously reported in March in central Brazil, in July in Belize, in September in southern Brazil, and in December in Cuba.
Incubation, by the female alone, lasts for around 30 days.
Eggs laid by stygian owls are plain white and rounded in shape, similar in size to table tennis balls. A typical clutch contains between 1 and three eggs.
From what little we know about the breeding habits of stygian owls, it appears that they are monogamous and will usually reunite to breed each year. Bonds are strengthened during courtship with males performing a wing-clapping display flight and females presenting males with food offerings.
Stygian owl perched high up in the forest trees
Aggressive hunting behavior is characteristic of stygian owls, who are observed to fearlessly attack prey that is much larger than themselves. Hissing and bill-snapping may be used when they feel their nest site is at risk.
Stygian owls are nocturnal, hunting during hours of darkness and roosting in dense vegetation during daylight hours. Empty cavities abandoned by other species may be used for roosting.
From all information available about the species’ habits and behavior, it appears that across their range, stygian owls are permanent residents and no migration occurs.
Stygian owls are not native to the US and the only records of the species in the country are as scarce vagrant individuals, limited to Florida and Texas. Sightings are not regular and no breeding has ever taken place in the United States.
Stygian owls have piercing golden-yellow eyes. Their eyes can appear to glow a fiery red when illuminated by artificial light.
Stygian refers to the Styx, the river of the Underworld in Greek mythology. The Styx was the river crossed by souls to reach the Underworld and formed the boundary of Hades. Today it has a wider meaning relating to being dark and gloomy, which reflects their dusky plumage.
38cm to 46cm
96cm to 110cm
500g to 700g
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.
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.
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.
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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