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Owls are such distinctively shaped birds that even non-birders recognize them. It shouldn't surprise us that everyone who answered this quiz knew that this was an owl.
Typical experiences with owls happen at night. Our first clue to their presence is usually a distinctive vocalization. More often than not, we are making a specific attempt to see them—encouraging them to come to us. Then when we do see them, we have a good idea of what they were even before they flew in. But then when we do see them it's usually dark, encounters are typically brief, and the simple euphoria of most owl experiences means that most of us have little experience actually seeing or studying owls. But now we've found one and it's just sitting there. What the heck is it?!
Perhaps the most notable feature of this bird is the small distinctive ear tufts. While not a particularly technical way of looking at this bird, we can admit that these ear tufts are, well, "cute." Great Horned and Long-eared Owls each have ear tufts, but they are much larger than this bird's. Many words can describe them, but cute isn't one of them. Those species are also larger and predominately brownish. While some Great Horned Owls can have pale gray faces, most Great Horned and Long-eared Owls have tawny faces.
The only real options are the owls in the genus Otus. In the ABA area this means Eastern Screech-Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Flammulated Owl, and for those of you in fantasyland—Oriental Scops-Owl (there are two June records from the Western Aleutians).
Looking even more carefully at those ear tufts, we note that they are not very long. This bird is very alert and stretched out. In such a posture, Otus owls would have their ear tufts extended quite prominently, but on this bird these tufts still appear small. This is perhaps our first clue that this is a Flammulated Owl—the species has the shortest ear tufts of any North American Otus. But ear tuft length can be misleading, even if we account for posture.
What about all the rufous patches to the plumage? This is problematic for any of the Screech-Owls. To be sure, there are many brown morph Eastern and Western Screech-Owls, but on these birds the brown coloration is spread throughout the plumage, not confined to patches as it is on this bird. Another good indication that this is not a screech-owl is seen by looking at the white spots on the wings. On this bird the white on the wings is confined to spots—on screech-owls these spots connect and form rows. Perhaps least subjective of all is that the lower border to the facial disk only has a narrow dark border that appears to be the same width as the rest of the sides of the border to the facial disk. All the screech-owls show a much thicker border to the bottom "corners" of the facial disk.
The final confirmation we can just make out by looking very closely at those squinty eyes—there's no hint of yellow or orange to the eyes. It's hard to even make out the pupils on this bird; that's because this bird's eyes are dark, just as we would expect on Flammulated Owl. I photographed this Flammulated Owl in May of 2004 at Chico Basin Ranch, El Paso, Colorado (a place that furnished just one of a handful of plains records).
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the May Bird Photo Quiz—Flammulated Owl:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Chris Wood.