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Bare-shanked Screech-Owl: A Fascinating Look at the Unique Bird Species

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, also known as the Megascops clarkii, is a small bird species found in Central America and Mexico. Despite its size, this owl species has a lot to offer, from its unique physical features to its distinct plumages and molts.

In this article, we will discuss how to identify the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl in the field, similar species that may cause confusion, its different plumages, and the molts that occur in this owl species.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is typically small, measuring about 7 inches in length. Its head seems large compared to its body, which creates a distinct appearance.

One of the unique physical features that differentiate the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl from other owl species is its bare tarsi. This means that the bird’s shanks and toes are devoid of feathers, resulting in a bald appearance.

Additionally, its yellow eyes, ear tufts, and short tail set it apart from other species. Field


When identifying the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl in the field, note that it has a prominent white V-shaped patch on its nape.

It also has olive-grey and brown feathers on its upper body, and mostly white feathers on its underparts. Typically, the bird’s upper body features darker markings with light spots.

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl has a unique voice which is best described as a whistled trill.

Similar Species

At times, it may be difficult to distinguish the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl from other owl species, particularly the Middle American Screech Owl. Both species have similar physical features, including the featherless tarsi and ear tufts.

However, the Middle American Screech Owl tends to have darker marks on its underparts with a bolder white V-shaped patch compared to the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl. Additionally, the Middle American Screech Owl tends to inhabit high elevations that average 1,000 meters above sea level.


Like other birds, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl experiences various plumages throughout its life cycle. Typically, the species has three plumages juvenile, basic, and alternate.

Juvenile plumage is characterized by the scapulars and upper parts being covered in rufous spots with extensive spotting throughout the chest and sides. The basic plumage is characterized by a significant absence of rufous spots alongside well-defined dark brown plumage on its upper parts with slight light tips.

The chest and sides will have some spotting but less than in juvenile plumage. The alternate plumage of the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is often vibrant and is characterized by its scapulars and upper parts having a more extensive rufous colour, with the spotting being reduced to the chest with no or slight spotting on the sides.


Generally, birds undergo two molts in a year the prebasic molt and the prealternate molt. The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is no exception.

Its feathers undergo regular wear and tear, which necessitates regular replacement. During the prebasic molt, the bird shed its breeding plumage and replaces it with non-breeding plumage.

On the contrary, during the prealternate molt, the bird replaces its non-breeding plumage with breeding plumage. The molts cause different changes and variations among plumages that help to differentiate adult and juvenile birds.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a fascinating bird species that underscores the beauty and diversity of owls. Its unique appearance, vocalizations, and plumages make it a joy to watch and study.

By learning how to identify the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, its similar species, plumages, and molts, bird enthusiasts can develop a deeper appreciation for this unique bird species. , as the article will end with the final section on

Historical Changes to Distribution.

Systematics History

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl belongs to the Strigidae family of the Strigiformes order. This owl’s species is relatively new as the scientific name, Megascops clarkii, was only established in 1997, derived in the honor of field biologist John Clark.

Before establishing the scientific name, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl was grouped under the Whiskered Screech-Owl and also the Caribbean variant of the complex’ subspecies.

Geographic Variation

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl’s range encompasses Mexico through Central America, from southern Sonora and Tamaulipas through Panama and on to northwestern Colombia. The specific habitat of this owl species is primarily rainforest and humid forest where it inhabits from sea level to about 2500 meters in elevation.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl has numerous subspecies as listed below:

1. Megascops clarkii brewsteri


Megascops clarkii clarkii

3. Megascops clarkii duidae


Megascops clarkii grallarius

5. Megascops clarkii incredulus


Megascops clarkii margaritae

7. Megascops clarkii mirus


Megascops clarkii nicoyae

9. Megascops clarkii pacificus


Megascops clarkii suttoni

Related Species

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl belongs to the “Megascops” genus, which contains around 23 other species that are primarily found in the Americas. Similar features to the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl shared between other members of the genus include the featherless tarsi, ear tufts, and the ability to make a horse-like whinny sound.

However, some of these species are easier to differentiate than others.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl’s range has undergone significant historical changes driven mostly by the alteration of the landscape by human activity. Clear-cutting of forests for agriculture and habitat fragmentation have been the main drivers causing the owl species’ disappearance in some areas.

Over the years, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl has experienced changes in the distribution and the suitability of its habitat.

In Costa Rica, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is not commonly distributed in Nicoya Peninsula or the mountains in the Atlantic zone, even though occurrences may be found on the Osa Peninsula.

However, due to migratory patterns, it is still common to find this owl species in the Northwestern Pacific area of Costa Rica, including the Guanacaste and Tilaran mountains.

In Mexico and other Central American countries, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl has experienced a decline in distribution and areas of former habitats have become too small or degraded to support the species.

Its habitat has been destroyed or fragmented by human activity, including logging, deforestation, and land conversion for farming. These changes continue to affect the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl’s distribution and have led to a decline in numbers as their habitat becomes unsustainable.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a unique and fascinating bird species, yet it is vulnerable to the same environmental impacts as other species that share its habitat. The owl species’ distribution and range have undergone historical variation, driven mostly by human activities such as deforestation, agriculture, and other forms of habitat destruction.

It is, therefore, essential to take necessary measures to ensure the preservation and sustainability of its habitat to save it from further decline. Measures such as habitat conservation and restoration, awareness creation, and bird monitoring will help preserve this species and allow future generations to enjoy the Bare-shanked Screech-Owls natural beauty and significance in the ecology of the Americas.

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Movements and Migration.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl prefers the canopy of trees in humid and rainforests where it tends to rest and hide during the day. This species of owls can also thrive in mixed forests, wooded ravines, and areas with trees, especially those surrounded by wetlands.

They can be found in the lower altitude and mid-elevation regions of these habitats, as well as the secondary and primary growth forest. Although they are found at higher altitudes, they generally prefer lowlands.

These owl species also have a preference for areas with large trees, especially those with hollow spaces as their preferred breeding location. Large trees can also provide constant supplies of fruits and insects, contributing to the Bare-shanked Screech-Owls food source.

These trees also serve as lookout and roosting points for the owl species.

Movements and Migration

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is generally a non-migratory bird, except for some populations that exhibit vertical migration. The vertical migration has to do with the changing availability of food in their habitat, as with many other bird species.

In their nesting areas, Bare-shanked Screech-Owls tend to become sedentary, often staying in one spot for several years. Despite being non-migratory, seasonal movement has been observed, especially within populations living in higher elevations.

While some populations move down the mountain to lowland areas with the onset of the dry season, others move upwards to cooler highland areas to avoid harsh weather elements. This movement is not a typical migration, but rather a response to seasonal weather changes.

In addition to seasonal movements, juvenile Bare-shanked Screech-Owls leave their nests in search of a new habitat after maturation, which takes about two or three months. These movements can span across several miles, and this is a notable movement among the owl species.

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owls movements and habitat are threatened due to human activities such as deforestation, mining, logging, and the conversion of lands to farming and grazing lands. These activities destabilize the natural environment and affect feeding habits, migratory patterns, and overall survival rates amongst Bare-shanked Screech-Owls.

Conservation efforts are critical in preserving the Bare-shanked Screech-Owls habitat and maintaining an environment suitable for its non-migratory and seasonal migration patterns. In addition, creating awareness to these environmental threats and limiting human activity can help to protect this unique bird species habitat and food sources.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl prefers a canopy within humid and rainforests, while enabling food variation and habitat suitability, with a non-migratory profile in most cases. However, some populations may move seasonally, which contributes to the bird species’ survival.

While Bare-shanked Screech-Owls are generally sedentary birds, their habitat is under threat from various land-use changes, especially deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and human activity. Maintaining sustainable habitats with abundant food sources is crucial to their survival, especially for threatened populations that have shown seasonal movement.

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Sounds and Vocal Behavior.

Diet and Foraging

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a carnivorous bird that feeds mostly on insects, small mammals, reptiles, and birds. The owl species hunts using the sit and wait strategy prevalent among many other owl species.

It typically perches on a tree or any high surface and scans the surrounding environment for any movement that can serve as prey.


Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a nocturnal bird as it prefers to hunt when it’s dark. It uses its acute hearing to detect the movement or sound of any prey nearby while sitting and waiting quietly in a safe lookout point and rapidly swoops in to grab the prey with its sharp talons.

At times, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl chases its prey on foot, especially when after a moving pest or insect on the forest floor.


These owl species often prefer to feed on insects and small mammals. Some of the insects they feed on include katydids, crickets, moths, beetles, and cicadas.

Small mammals like mice, rats, shrews, bats among others, are also readily available sources of food.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The rate of metabolism in Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is relatively low compared to many bird species. The owl species uses the metabolic rate when it’s resting to conserve energy during periods of low food availability.

However, during periods of low temperatures, the metabolism rate in the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl increases to help the body generate energy and maintain proper body functioning.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is not only known for its unique appearance, but it also has a unique vocal behavior. The species is often active at night, where it makes regular and audible sounds using its unique vocalization.

The owl tends to use a whistle or trill vocalization, which sounds like a horse neighing. It is often distinguishable from other bird species living in the same habitat.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl uses vocalization to communicate either to obtain food, establish territories, and courtship. The owl’s vocalization can vary from a simple hoot to a hoarse screech at times.

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owls vocalization is quite distinct from other owl species, and it’s crisper and more musical. The frequency of this vocalization varies from one region to another, making it possible to distinguish between different Bare-shanked Screech-Owl sub-species.

While there is little recorded information on the vocal behavior of the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, their vocalizations have been used by researchers to monitor changes in owl populations. Researchers can tell if the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is present in a particular habitat just by analyzing their unique vocalization patterns.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a nocturnal bird that primarily feeds on insects, small mammals, reptiles, and birds. It uses its acute hearing and keen eyesight to detect movement and sound when hunting its prey.

This owl species communicates using vocalization, which might vary from one region to another, making it useful in distinguishing different Bare-shanked Screech-Owl sub-species. Their unique vocalization has been used by researchers in population monitoring.

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl’s low metabolic rate is significant in energy conservation during resting periods to help survive periods of low food availability. , as the article will end with the final section on

Demography and Populations.



The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a small bird that tends to move about in flight silently, aided by a fan-shaped tail. When foraging, it quietly hops or jumps from one branch to another or scurries along on the forest floor, primarily at night.


These owl species maintain their appearance and hygiene through feather maintenance, especially through preening. Preening is a grooming behavior used by the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl to maintain healthy feathers, remove dirt, and any debris accumulated in their feathers, ensuring the feathers are kept clean at all times.

Agonistic Behavior

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl exhibits agonistic behavior when threatened, either towards other birds or other animals. This includes puffed-up feathers and aggressive sounds, which may be used as a warning.

Sexual Behavior

The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a monogamous bird species that mates for life.

Breeding pairs exhibit strong sexual bonds often seen through displays of affectionate behaviors, including preening their partner’s feathers.

Mating rituals, which include calls and body posturing, are often used to attract potential suitors.


Bare-shanked Screech-Owls breed twice a year, with nest building and mating behavior occurring from around January to April and then again in August. The male and the female pair up in breeding rituals, which involve the male bringing food to the female.

After mating, the female, assisted by the male bird, builds a nest from the twigs and leaves, oftentimes in a natural hollow tree cavity or an artificial nest box. The female then lays eggs, which she incubates for about four weeks.

After hatching, the parents share the responsibility of feeding and caring for the young birds’ development, which can take about two months.

Demography and Populations

Bare-shanked Screech-Owls are widespread in different regions of Central America and Mexico, although population decline has been prevalent due to human activity. The species population is decreasing rapidly in many areas, with some even nearing extinction levels.

Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and conversion of forest lands contribute to population decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl as a species of “Least Concern,” although individual population segments may be more susceptible to extinction.

Research suggests that distribution and population can be increased through habitat conservation efforts, including land maintenance and forestation.


The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is a small bird species found in Mexico and Central American regions with distinctive behaviors, including foraging, self-maintenance, agonistic behavior and sexual behavior.

Breeding takes place twice a year with mating rituals and nest-building, followed by parental care of the young until they mature.

The species is a monog

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