To refresh your memory, here again is the photo for Bird Quiz #4. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying this bird.
As I mentioned in the quiz, I saw this bird near Grand Junction, Colorado, in May. Even a non-birder will probably recognize the flat face and upright posture as belonging to an owl. The real question is, which owl?
North America is home to 19 species of owl. That makes this ID much easier than, say, choosing from among 54 wood warblers or 49 emberizid sparrows (not to mention the non-sparrows that look like sparrows). Still, 19 options is nothing to sneeze at.
Since the bird is sitting in a tree, we can get an idea of its size—much larger than an Elf Owl, Flammulated Owl, or Northern Saw-whet. Still, size is difficult to estimate, even with a handy branch for comparison.
The next useful clue is the feather “ears” on top of the head. Not all owls have these tufts, so that narrows the field to one of the three Screech Owls, a Long-eared Owl, or a Great Horned Owl. (We’ve already eliminated the much-smaller Flammulated Owl.)
Because the bird was seen in western Colorado, it’s highly unlikely that it’s a Whiskered or Eastern Screech Owl, but you never know.
A quick look through the field guide reveals that this bird looks nothing like any of the contenders. But wait—it’s May. Perhaps we have a fledgling!
Checking the illustrations confirms this guess. This is definitely a very young owl. Most young owls are fluffy and gray like this, but only the Long-eared Owl has ear tufts at this age. And that is what this is.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m notoriously awful at spotting owls. I confess—I did not find these by myself. The pair of breeding adults was documented during a survey for the new Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas. I was on a field trip associated with the Colorado Field Ornithologists annual convention, and, trusting our commitment to the owls’ safety, the surveyors shared the location of the nest with our trip leader. As he reminded us, it’s important to avoid stressing any bird, but especially one that’s nesting.