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7 Fascinating Behaviors of the Middle American Screech-Owl: From Courtship to Flying Skills

Middle American Screech-Owl, scientifically known as Megascops guatemalae, is a small nocturnal bird species that mainly resides in the central and southern parts of Mexico, south to Nicaragua. This unique bird species has distinctive characteristics that set it apart from other owl species.

This article aims to provide relevant information about the Middle American Screech-Owl’s identification, plumages, molts, and similar species.


Middle American Screech-Owls are about 16.519.5 cm long, and their wingspread ranges from 47 to 54 cm. They have a weight of about 67-95 grams and a distinctive round head with ear tufts.

Their eyes are very large relative to their very small bill. They also have patterns on their plumage that aid in their identification.

The Megascops guatemalae’s plumage color is gray-brown with a series of white and dark brown streaks on the upper chest and belly. Their wings and back are intricately lined with white, buff, and brown, forming a marbled pattern that provides excellent camouflage.

The legs, toes, and claws are also feathered. Field


Middle American Screech-Owls are nocturnal, so their primary identification features are vocalization and visual patterns.

Their song is a series of whistles or screeching sounds, with a slow tremolo followed by four whistled notes that go up and then down. The visual differences in plumages between the sexes can also help with identification.

Females tend to have more distinct dark streaking than males, who have more solid patterning. Their ear tufts are often held flat against their head or straight out from the sides of the head when they are alert or agitated.

Similar Species

The Middle American Screech-Owls could be confused with other owl species in their range. One possible confusion species is the Whiskered Screech-Owl, which has a smaller size and streakier breast pattern.

The coloration of the Central American Pygmy Owl is similar, but it lacks ear tufts and has a different pattern on its back. The White-throated Screech-Owls can appear similar to Middle American Screech-Owls, with their ear tufts and large eyes, but they have distinctive white throats and lack the streaky breast pattern.


The owl species undergo annual molts, and their plumage can provide useful information for identification. The juveniles of Middle American Screech-Owls have a similar plumage color, but lack the clear, streaked, and individually patterned feathers of the adults.

The ear tufts in juvenile owls are also less curly or less well-formed. Megascops guatemalae goes through regular molts: the pre-basic molt and the pre-alternate molt.

The owl species usually molts from January until August and goes through a complete pre-basic molt from August through November.


Middle American Screech-Owls experience two main molts each year: the pre-basic molt and the pre-alternate molt. In the pre-basic molt, the owl molts every feather and scales on its wings, tail, body, and head.

The pre-alternate molt is smaller and affects only the feathers on the wings and body. Molting is an energy-demanding process, and the owl needs to provide energy to grow new feathers and remove the old ones.

Owls do not fly or hunt during molting phase, and it leaves them vulnerable to predation and hunger. Juveniles and adults also molt at different times, and the feathers can differ in shape, size, and coloration according to plumage age.


In sum, the Middle American Screech-Owl is a small and distinctive owl species found in southern North America and Central America. The distinctive ear tufts, feather patterns, and vocalizations set it apart from other owl species in its range.

As with other owl species, its plumages undergo significant changes during molts, which can be helpful for bird identification in the field. Understanding its key identification features and molting cycles can help to appreciate the beauty of this unique bird species.

The Middle American Screech-Owl belongs to the family Strigidae and the genus Megascops. It is a small nocturnal bird of prey found in the central and southern parts of Mexico, south to Nicaragua.

This article provides further information about the systematics history, geographic variation, subspecies, related species, and historical changes to distribution of the Middle American Screech-Owl.

Systematics History

The Middle American Screech-Owl was first described by John Gould in 1837 as Scops guatemalensis, and later moved to the genus Megascops. In its genus, it is a sister species to several other American Screech-Owl species.

However, recent taxonomic revision studies suggest that Middle American Screech-Owls in southern Mexico could represent a distinct and separate species.

Geographic Variation

There are no significant regional variations in the morphology or size of the Middle American Screech-Owl, but there is a slight difference in colors in the different populations found throughout its range. Generally, the subspecies found in the southern range is paler than those in the north.


The Middle American Screech-Owl has 12 recognized subspecies with distinct geographic distributions and variations in plumage color. These subspecies are based on the geographic distribution of different populations and subtle differences in their plumages:


g. canescens – The subspecies is found in the central and southern parts of Mexico and has pale grey-brown plumage and orangish-brown facial disks.

M. g.

undulatus – This subspecies has a darker and more heavily patterned plumage with a white necklace around the neck. It is found in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, and Belize.

M. g.

satrapa – The subspecies is found in central Guatemala and southern Mexico and has grey-brown plumage with fine, whitish streaks on its back and wings. M.

g. xanti – This subspecies is distributed in central and eastern Mexico and has a darker and heavily streaked plumage.

M. g.

usta – It is found in southwest Mexico and has a paler plumage and less bold facial disks. M.

g. nanus – This subspecies is restricted to El Salvador and has a more rufous plumage color than other subspecies.

Related Species

The Middle American Screech-Owl is part of a complex species group that includes the Whiskered Screech-Owl, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, the Cloud-forest Screech-Owl, the Pacific Screech-Owl, the Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and the Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl. These species share similar physical characteristics but can generally be distinguished by their plumage patterns and distinct vocalizations.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Middle American Screech-Owl has gone through recent historical changes in its distribution. Although no significant range contractions have been reported, the species has expanded its range into South Central America since the 1960s.

For example, specimens were recorded in Panama in the 1980s, but there were no documented reports in the country before this. The expansion of the species range may be attributed to habitat modification, increased surveys, or greater exploration of remote areas.

Additionally, habitat loss and fragmentation have had a notable impact on the owl’s distribution. The species thrives in mature and undisturbed montane forest habitats, and the removal of these habitats for farming and other human activities has caused a decline in populations of the species.

Additionally, habitat fragmentation affects the Middle American Screech-Owl as they are unable to disperse or move between isolated habitats, leaving populations more prone to genetic isolation, disease, and demographic fluctuations.


In summary, Middle American Screech-Owl is a small nocturnal bird of prey found mainly in Central America. The subspecies found across its range have subtle differences in plumage coloration and are distributed according to geographic regions.

The species group it is related to share similar morphology and vocalizations. Historical changes in the species’ distribution can be attributed to habitat modification, increases in surveys, and greater exploration of remote areas.

The impact of habitat fragmentation and loss on the Middle American Screech-Owl has also had notable effects on the species population distributions in recent times. The Middle American Screech-Owl (Megascops guatemalae) inhabits a variety of forested habitats in its range.

This article provides detailed information about the habitat requirements of the species, its movements, and migration patterns.


The Middle American Screech-Owl is primarily a forest-dwelling species and inhabits both montane and deciduous forests. The habitats are typically high in elevation, and humid or semihumid, from sea level up to altitudes of 2,500 meters.

This species is commonly located in edges of forests, along forest roads, and in habitats disturbed by human activity. The species thrives in forests with closed canopies and a diverse understory or brushy undergrowth.

These forest types are mostly characterized by high vegetation density, good cover, and relatively cool temperatures. Also, the species requires near-perfect darkness for hunting, and therefore avoids open habitats such as grasslands, agricultural fields, and cities.

Movements and Migration

The Middle American Screech-Owl is a non-migratory bird and generally resides in or near the same breeding sites all year round. Although the species has been known to disperse short distances, up to a few kilometers, there is little evidence of migratory movements.

Juvenile birds tend to leave the nest before they learn to fly, as they are precocial. Instead, they move up into a nearby tree or shrub where their parents continue to feed them.

A noticeable behavior during winter months is that the species can become active during daytime hours. This may be a response to the short period of winter daylight, which reduces the owls’ active foraging time.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the most significant threats to the Middle American Screech-Owl. Deforestation, conversion of forest to agricultural and urban areas, and fragmentation of forest habitats have reduced the suitable habitats for the species.

Also, the new roads developed for agriculture and commercial reasons have increased accessibility to remote areas, leading to further habitat loss and degradation that impact the populations of this species. Additionally, changes in the composition of the forest may affect the food availability of these owls.

Conservation Efforts

Various conservation measures have been employed to mitigate the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation on the Middle American Screech-Owl. These efforts have targeted habitat conservation, management, and restoration.

Habitat conservation involves identifying key habitats used by the species and their distribution to be conserved for long-term species maintenance. The management of existing forests involves managing the forests’ design and structure to suit the needs of the species.

This includes promoting the growth of suitable understory vegetation to support breeding, foraging, and habitat preferences. The conservation efforts aim to foster the best possible habitat conditions for this species.

Additionally, education and outreach programs targeting locals have been initiated to raise awareness and support for the species habitat conservation and restoration. An active monitoring program is also in place to survey the species’ population trends and ultimately guide conservation efforts.


The Middle American Screech-Owl is a forest-dwelling species inhabiting humid or semihumid forests. The species is non-migratory, making movements only between short distances.

The construction of roads for agricultural purposes and urbanization is the primary cause of the loss and fragmentation of the species habitat, leading to human impact on this owl’s populations.

Habitat conservation, management, and restoration are the primary measures employed to mitigate these impacts.

These efforts, combined with other conservation measures, support the long-term persistence of this unique bird species in its habitat. The Middle American Screech-Owl (Megascops guatemalae) has a distinct foraging and feeding behavior, and complex vocalizations.

These characteristics are significant for understanding the species’ adaptations to its environment, behavior, and communication with conspecifics. This article provides detailed information on the diet and foraging behavior, metabolic adaptations, and vocal behavior of the Middle American Screech-Owl.

Diet and Foraging

The Middle American Screech-Owl feeds mainly on invertebrates, including insects, spiders, and other arthropods. The diet also comprises vertebrates such as lizards, small snakes, and small mammals, such as bats.

The species’ prey size is highly variable, from very small insects to mice of about 20g. The birds foraging behavior depends on the abundance and diversity of prey.

Foraging is active and involves a combination of scans of different perches, searching on the ground, foliage gleaning, and hovering during hunting, primarily in the understory of forests. This species usually hunts at night but may start up to a half-hour before dusk.

It may also forage at dawn in response to the short winter day length and reduced active foraging time. This species has specific adaptations to cope with the fluctuating availability of prey and the low temperatures found in montane forests at night.

The metabolic rate of this species is lower than expected for the owls’ size, reducing the bird’s food requirements for maintaining life. They can live with just a relatively low amount of nutrients and can also tolerate a wide range of temperatures, which could allow them to survive at altitudes with low temperatures.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

The Middle American Screech-Owl vocalizes to communicate with other owls and to establish or defend territories. The primary vocalization is a series of low-pitched hoots, delivered both continuously and intermittently, in an irregular pattern.

The calls consist of a low, wavering trill lasting for a couple of seconds, with a screech that increases in volume, pitch, and speed.


The vocalization patterns of the Middle American Screech-Owl vary between sexes and among populations and may aid in distinguishing different subspecies. The males exhibit more territorial behavior, and their calls could also be used for mate attraction, while the females may respond with soft hoots or other sounds.

Vocalizations are primarily used by these birds for intraspecific communication. The calls indicate the bird’s territoriality to other nearby birds and coordinates reproductive behavior.

These birds start breeding between February and August, with a peak between March and June.

Breeding Pairs

The breeding pairs have species-specific pair calls in which the male and female call in alternating, overlapping sequences. The purpose of this vocalization is to coordinate the breeding efforts between the pair and therefore ensure the success of their reproduction.


The species may also participate in duetting. The duet is similar to the pair calls but occurs with longer intervals than the pair calls.

The duet serves to reinforce pair bonds, maintain territories, and advertise the pairs breeding state to nearby owls.


The Middle American Screech-Owl has adapted to its surrounding environment with a unique foraging behavior and metabolic regulation. The correspondence of their foraging behavior relative to prey abundance and diversity enables the species to cope with changes in prey availability and food source.

The species vocalizations are unique, adaptive, and primarily serve intraspecific communication purposes, including pair bonding, reproduction coordination, and territory maintenance. Middle American Screech-Owls remain a significant and unique species that requires habitat conservation and management for their long-term persistence in their respective ecosystems.

The Middle American Screech-Owl (Megascops guatemalae) exhibits a range of behaviors, including locomotion, self-maintenance, sexual, agonistic, breeding, demography, and population behavior. These behaviors play a significant role in the species survival, interaction with conspecifics, and adaptation to its native environment.



The Middle American Screech-Owl is a strong flier that uses rapid wing beats with strong glides, minimizing movements when looking for prey. This species can be located on a perched position or on the ground while hunting and foraging.

As an arboreal species, they primarily move from branch to branch, using their strong feet and claws to grip onto tiny branches.


This species conducts self-maintenance activities, such as preening, tending to feathers, and foot maintenance. Preening involves cleaning of feathers and beak using their tongue and secretions from their uropygial glands to maintain their feathers waterproofness and hence, prevent feather damage from environmental exposure.

Agonistic Behavior

Agonistic behavior between Middle American Screech-Owls is rare and typically limited to warning displays such as wing spreading, bill clicking, and hissing during disputes.

Sexual Behavior

The sexual behavior of the Middle American Screech-Owl is unique to each individual resulting in a range of vocalization and behavior patterns. During the mating period, males search for female partners, exhibiting a characteristic courtship behavior with specific vocalizations, including coordinated duetting.


Middle American Screech-Owls breed yearly, and breeding occurs between February to September, with most activities peaking between March and June. The courtship rituals involve pair-displays with males leading the way.

Once established, the pairs spend more time together, communicating

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