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Identify this Mystery Owl

August 26, 2020

Owls are seen in many unusual places: roof tops, antennas, flagpoles, Joshua Trees, low mounds, tree tops, deep inside tree foliage next to the trunk, out on a limb, holes, rafters of barns and abandoned houses, low bushes, deep grass. This one was spotted on a window ledge air-conditioning unit.

Debate raged on-line about what it was.

Could it be one of the Masked-Owls, as suggested by the distinct facial pattern? There are eight species of Masked-owls in the Barn Owl family (Tytonidae), all living in the Australasian area, of which the best known is the Australian Masked-Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae), with six subspecies. Could it be one of those? Unfortunately no one seemed to know where the photo was from, so we couldn’t rule anything out due to it’s being too far out of range.

Of the other seven Masked-Owl species, they collectively have nine subspecies, of which four are “vulnerable” and three “data deficient” according to bird listing program Scythebill. The two subspecies of Sulawesi Masked-Owl (Tyto rosenbergii) seem to be surviving OK – at least there were no red flags.

Tough to decide, as we didn’t know the source of the photo. However, the existence of the two prominent ear-tuffs make it unlikely that it is one of the Masked-Owls. This group is part of the Barn-Owl family, none of which (as far as I know) have any sort of ear-tuffs. We had to look elsewhere.

Masked-Owl or Roof-Owl?
(photographer unknown)

Then someone suggested our North American Roof-Owl group. This oft-seen but little-understood species, the Western Roof-Owl (Bubo pneumatikus) to be specific, is common in suburban Southern California (in the event that the photo was taken locally) and air-conditioning units are certainly well within their habitat requirements.

The problem is that we hadn’t ever seen them with these particular facial patterns before. It may be a subspecies of B. pneumatikus; it may also be an entirely new, previously well-hidden species heretofore unsuspected.

It should be noted that Roof-Owl come in two behavioral morphs, straight-ahead and right-looking. This bird appears to be of the straight-ahead morph. (Link to monograph on Bubo pneumatikus.)

Getting a DNA sample of the bird would be helpful. As we don’t know the source of the photo or where it was taken, we are asking the public for help. If you see this bird or a similarly masked owl, please contact your local birding authorities as soon as possible.

Thank you for your attention.

[Chuck Almdale]


  1. Lynn Bossone permalink
    September 6, 2020 7:08 pm

    You are outdoing yourself, Chuck. LOL! I am enjoying your blogs very much.
    Many thanks


  2. Ken Chotiner permalink
    August 27, 2020 11:03 pm

    It’s a Masked Western Roof-Owl


    • Chukar permalink*
      August 28, 2020 11:33 am

      Well, I think so too, but the possibility remains that it’s a previously undescribed subspecies of the Western Roof-Owl, or an undescribed new Roof-Owl complex species. I don’t think we can resolve that issue without further observations and DNA samples.

      C. Prismon-Reed, denizen of the north woods where her name is oft-spoken in hushed whispers, offers this analysis (via private communication):

      “While this is indeed a rare sighting, there are a couple of clues not mentioned. One is the reflection of leafy trees in the window panes, suggesting old growth deciduous forest surroundings [I may have spelt this wrong but I write in haste due to the time-critical nature of this event, and the phone is not helping]. Further, it appears to be a third or fourth story location, so these are tall trees. The second is the unique architecture of the building, extrapolated from the stone framing of the window, reminiscent of early American government buildings found in Washington DC, state capitals, and other large cities (such as Los Angeles) and not a few post offices. [The ancient type of window AC also favors a government building.] This however does not provide a good distinction on location, except to rule out alpine and montane regions such as the Rockies and Northwest.

      Given these two additional factors, I suspect this owl is B. p. semperfutilis [I may also have spelled this wrong, I never did well on Latin declension], in light phase plumage (dark phase has gray and black barring on facial disk like Otus flammeolus, gray phase, only in a more starred pattern).” C P-R

      I bow in deference to C P-R’s powers of observation and knowledge of Strigidae.


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