Zoo Bird Profiles: The Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)


 A Little History

Amidst the often ugly history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the Sixteenth Century, one of the happier details is the work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, compiler of Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana ("General History of the Matters of New Spain").

A Franciscan priest who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after Cortes's destruction of the Aztec Capitol Tenochtitlan, he is popularly believed to have lived to a hundred, dying in 1590. "Sahagun was ordered to write in Nahuatl the information needed by his colleagues for the conversion of the Indians" (Collison, 1983). The greater part of the resulting Historia is "an incredibly detailed account of the beliefs and rites, dictated ... in Nahuatl by Aztec noblemen and priests," "a truly boundless treasury of mythological lore, descriptions of the rites, theological concepts, and religious poetry" (Soustille, 1983).

Sahagun's magnificent labor of love is not, however, restricted to anthropology. His curiosity extended to the flora and fauna of his adopted home, and many of the first published observations of New World life forms are included among "las cosas"

Sahagun noted a striking owl, whose voice reminded him of "tiles or plates being struck together" (Grossman & Hamlet, 1964). More than 400 years later, the Marquess of Tavistock (the future 12th Duke of Bedford) in an article in the Avicultural Magazine, compared the call of his pet "Bogey" to a "slow-moving goods tram."

Others may be reminded of "a sheet of tin being flexed quickly" (Howell & Webb, 1995). For aviculturists accus-. tomed to owls that "hoot" or "screech," the low, reverberating, somewhat mechanical "put-put-put-put-put-putput-put-put," which ends abruptly, is a pleasant surprise. I have cheerful memories of walking home from the Fort Worth Zoo on fall evenings while hearing this rather whimsical sound coming from the otherwise silent "Raptor Canyon," the hawks, eagles, vultures, and condors having gone to bed with the sunset.

The Spectacled Owl

Throughout its vast range, from the Mexican states of Veracruz and Oaxaca, through the greater portion of the South American Continent, to Northern Argentina, the Spectacled Owl is known as a source of distinctive night-time sounds. In general, it is known in Spanish speaking countries as Bubo de Anteojos or Lechuzon de Anteojos, both translatable as "Owl of the Spectacles." However, regional names abound. In Costa Rica it is also called the "Oropopo' (Stiles & Skutch, 1989), an obvious reference to a call usually phoneticized in hooks as "PUP-pup-pup-pup-po" or "PUM-PUMpum-pum: (Holt, et al, 1999). A Brazilian name is "Knocking Owl" (Grossman & Hamlet, 1964), and in some quarters it's the "Coffin Maker."

Of course the Spectacled Owl's remarkable appearance has, in its own right, earned it more than the usual attention given to owls. It is the most likely species of...



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