Spectacled Owl

Pulsatrix perspicillata
Population status:
Least Concern
Body length:
41-52cm (16-20in)
305-360mm (12-14 in)
450-1,250g (1-2.75lbs)
Spectacled Owl


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Did You Know?

  • Despite their relatively large size, Spectacled Owls, like other predatory birds, are often chased off by much smaller bird species who are trying to protect themselves, or their young, from getting eaten. Even the buzzing attack of a small hummingbird can be enough to make a Spectacled Owl leave its perch and look for a place where it can remain undisturbed. 

Other Owls

How The Peregrine Fund is Helping

Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Spectacled Owls, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve birds of prey around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation. We also support the Neotropical Raptor Network, which was created to help improve communication among raptor biologists, veterinarians, and enthusiasts working in the Neotropics. 

Where They Live

Just like the Harpy Eagle, the relatively large Spectacled Owl is found throughout the Neotropics. However, unlike the Harpy Eagle, this owl's range extends into the Caribbean, namely to the island of Trinidad.  It is considered a species of lowland forests, which means it is rarely, if ever seen in areas with very high elevations.  However, it has been recorded at up to 1,500 (4,900 ft) meters above sea level (masl).                                                                                                                                          

The Spectacled Owl is a bird that knows what it likes. And what it likes are dense, lush rainforests filled with mature trees. This is where it spends much of its time. However, like many other bird species, this owl can and will venture into other types of habitats, especially forest edges. Now, you may be asking why an owl that likes dense forests would travel to an area with little or few trees. The answer, of course, is food! Forest edges can be great places for an owl to find its next meal, as the open areas provide little cover for prey.

The Spectacled Owl has also been found in drier forests and savannas. In Panama, one young owl was found injured in a neighborhood within Panama City. The good news is this owl, named Gru Gru, was rehabilitated and eventually released. You can see videos of his release here.

What They Do

As you may have already guessed, the Spectacled Owl doesn't actually wear spectacles - another word for eye glasses. It gets its name because of the buffy-white "eye brows" and other white markings on its face that, when combined, make it look like it is wearing glasses. This tell-tale marking makes it nearly impossible to confuse the Spectacled Owl with any other owl species throughout most of its range. However, in parts of South America, it may be confused with the Tawny-browed Owl, which also looks like it is wearing eye glasses. 

Apart from its "spectacles," the Spectacled Owl has bright yellow eyes, and a dark brown head and facial disk. Its throat is white, which contrasts nicely with the dark "bib" along its upper breast. Its breast and belly are a buffy color with a tinge of yellowish-brown. Young Spectacled Owls have dark, heart-shaped faces, bright yellow eyes, and the rest of their bodies are covered in bright white fluff from head to toe! They look like snowmen wearing Zorro's mask.

Like most owls, the Spectacled Owl is principally a nocturnal species. This means it is active at night, often times beginning to move around after dusk and continuing on into the hours just before dawn.  Because it hunts chiefly during hours of little or no sunlight, the Spectacled Owl needs to use other senses, apart from its keen eyesight, to help it locate prey. Like most other owls, as well as like the Harpy Eagle and the Northern Harrier, the Spectacled Owl is equipped with a facial disk. The facial disk is composed of many feathers around the owl's head and helps direct sound to its ears. To get an idea of how it works, cup your hands behind your ears and listen – sounds will be louder and clearer. Owls can raise these feathers slightly when on the hunt, allowing them to hear the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the flapping of feathers in the night, or the scuttling of an insect in a tree branch. These sounds give away the location of prey animals, making it easy for these owls to deftly swoop in to catch a meal.

If you are beginning to think that a big part of being an owl has to do with hearing, you would be correct. Like other owls, the Spectacled Owl also has asymmetrical ear openings. This means that one ear opening is located higher up on one side of the head, while the other ear opening is located lower on the other side of the head. There can also be one ear opening that is a bit farther forward on the head while the ear opening on the other side of the head is a bit farther back. The ear positions can be any combination of high, low, forward, and back! This helps owls better triangulate sounds, thus making finding prey that much easier.

Would you be surprised to learn that an owl doesn't only use its sharp hearing to locate and catch prey?  It also needs to be able to hear in order to listen for danger (large animals or people walking in the forest, a predator climbing its nest tree) and to communicate with others of its kind. The Spectacled Owl uses a number of different calls, or vocalizations.  Different calls are used to find a mate,  to declare a territory, or to warn of danger. It  also makes a whole host of other sounds that we probably may never understand.   The Spectacled Owl's most well=known vocalizations sounds almost like someone is in the forest waving a sheet of tin in the air "whuuup, whuup, whup-whup-whup-whup."

Why They Need our Help

The Spectacled Owl is considered of Least Concern which means, in general, it is widespread and its populations have remained stable throughout its range. However, this doesn't mean that the Spectacled Owl doesn't face any threats.

Like most wildlife species, this gorgeous owl can be affected by deforestation and habitat fragmentation. And sadly, in many areas throughout its range, some people still shoot owls. There are many superstitions surrounding owls -  and some people believe that if they hear an owl calling, someone will die. This is, of course, just a myth - which means it isn't true. But unfortunately, this fact doesn't always stop people from kiling owls when they have the chance. The worst part is, the people who kill owls don't realize how beneficial they are - by eating rodents, many owl species help control mice and rat populations - thus helping to stop the spread of disease and helping to keep farms and agricultural fields free of pests. 

You can go a long way to protecting owls by educating people on how important they are and how much good they do us! 

What They Eat

The Spectacled Owl has a varied diet. It feeds on small mammals such as mice and bats and will take larger mammals like skunks and possums. Some scientists have even discovered this owl preying on small monkeys and once, even a sloth - which is quite heavy prey for a Spectacled Owl! 

But the Spectacled Owl doesn't stop at mammals. Also included on its menu are birds - such as jays, pigeons and motmots, and as an appetizer they enjoy amphibians (they have a particular taste for frogs) and invertebrates such as spiders, crabs, snails and caterpillars.

When on the hunt, the Spectacled Owl spends quite a bit of time perching on branches which provide a good vantage point for scanning for prey. When they find an appetizing meal, they drop down onto their prey with a quick pounce. They also snatch invertebrates from within the leaves and branches of trees.

Once prey is caught, the owl will either swallow it whole (if it is small enough) or rip off big chunks of meat at a time, which it happily swallows. As you know, birds can't chew and don't have teeth, so their beaks do the majority of the work. In order to get maximum ripping power, the owl will hold the body of its prey steady with one or both feet, and tear at it with its beak.

Unlike other birds of prey, owls do not have a crop - the sac where food is stored before it travels to the bird's digestive system. Instead, the food goes right into its belly. Now, as you can imagine, a hungry owl will swallow just about every part of its dinner, which includes meat, but also bones, and depending on the prey, could contain fur, feathers, exoskeletons, beaks, claws and other undigestable bits. Anything the owl is  unable to digest, it will regurgitate back out in the form of a pellet (an oval-shaped ball usually lined with fur or feathers). Finding an owl pellet can be very exciting! Scientists studying owls will dissect their pellets because they provide good clues as to what an owl is eating. Some biologists have even found entire skeletons of small prey, such as mice or bats, inside a single pellet. 

Nests, Eggs, and Young

Like most other owls, the Spectacled Owl doesn't build its own nest. Instead, it nests in tree cavities or in the crotch of a large tree. When prepared the nest site, it doesn't put down any nesting material, but instead the female will lay her eggs directly on the natural substrate. During breeding season, the female owl will lay 1-2 eggs, and she does the majority of the work incubating them. She sits almost round the clock on her eggs for more than a month - about 5 weeks, making sure they are safe and that they don't get too warm or too cold. 

After the chicks hatch, it can be a lot of work to take care of and feed them. Sometimes, if two chicks hatch, only one will survive. The younger or smaller of the two may die from starvation or be killed by its older sibling. This is called "fratricide." After about 5 or 6 weeks, the surviving young will leave the nest and begin to walk around on the branches of the tree. It will spend time gripping the branches, climbing, flapping its wings and perhaps even making short hops from tree limb to tree limb. This is great exercise to help the young owl build strength and it is good practice for when it is time to start flying. 

Even after the young owl is flying well, it will remain dependent on its parents' care for the next several months to a year. While the adults are taking care of the juvenile, they won't lay any more eggs or raise any more young. They must wait until the juvenile has left their territory before they can lay eggs again. Otherwise it would be too much work to care for so many owls at once.

Spectacled Owl and World Center for Birds of Prey

Though we do not have a Spectacled Owl as part of our educational program, the visitor center at our World Center for Birds of Prey does include owls among its avian ambassadors, including a Eurasian Eagle Owl. This is a great chance to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration.


De Silva, H. G., Pérez-Villafaña, M., & Santos-Moreno, J. A. (1997). Diet of the spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) during the rainy season in Northern Oaxaca, Mexico. Journal of Raptor Research, 31(4), 385-387. 2010.

Owl Pages - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectacled_owl

Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=209656

Voirin, J. B., Kays, R., Lowman, M. D., & Wikelski, M. (2009). Evidence for Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus) predation by spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata). Edentata, 8, 15-20.