Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the March 31, 2008 Newsletter written in the community of 28 de Junio, in the Central Valley 8 kms east of Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT. 16° 18'N, LONG. -92° 28'
MOTTLED OWL SNARLING

The most common owl here, abundant and calling throughout much of the night and day with monotonous and easily imitated whistled beeps, is the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The next-common owl, heard most nights but rarely seen, is the Mottled Owl, STRIX VIRGATA.

The first night I slept in the reserve one swooped over our little medicinal plant garden and landed in an acacia right above me, its black silhouette clearly visible against the night sky through my tent's transparent top-webbing. I identified it mostly through the process of elimination. It was too large to be one of the screech-owls, but wasn't large enough to be a horned owl, plus it lacked "horns" or ear-tufts.

And then my visitor hooted. There were five deep, resonant hoots like the North's Barred Owl's, with whom it's closely related, but then came a truly toe-curling call described by Howell as a wailing scream but which to me sounded like the kind of snarl a wild, prowling feline might make.

The next day, referring to Howell's distribution maps and taking into consideration the owl's size, earless silhouette, habitat, and its unforgettable snarl, I decided it was a Mottled Owl. The species is described as common in a wide variety of tropical habitats from Mexico to northern Argentina.

My guess is that the snarl evolved back when big cats roamed the land. If an owl could make itself sound like a prowling cat, sometimes it might unnerve a critter who'd bolt from his hiding place, enabling the owl to swoop and catch it. It's similar to our northern Bluejays who occasionally emit snarls imitating circling hawks. Maybe you've seen that call clear a bird-feeding area of all birds, enabling the Bluejays to swoop down and have the place all to themselves.