Birders on Puerto Rico have a chance of seeing two endemic night birds: one, the Puerto Rican Screech-owl Megascops nudipes, is widespread (with another [disputed] subspecies, newtoni, from the Virgin Islands either Critically Endangered or Extinct) and most insomniacs will at least hear its guttural, trilling purr if they try hard enough; the other, the Puerto Rican Nightjar Caprimulgus noctitherus, was thought extinct until it’s rediscovery until 1961, is Critically Endangered, probably declining, range-limited, and very difficult to see…
Photo left copyright Kevin Loughlin, Wildside Nature Tours
Back to the gorgeous Múcaro (as the Puerto Rican Screech-owl is called in Spanish), a pint-sized, heavily-streaked bundle of fury with a face bordered with striking white feathers. For such a small bird it’s over-burdened with myth and folklore. Not only was it once thought that owls bring bad luck, but – according to the usually reliable and very excellent owlpages.com – “people from the mountain coffee plantations used to blame the little múcaro for the loss of coffee grains. The belief was that the coffee was part of the owls’ diet, and many owls were killed”.
Screech-owls high on caffeine might be a fearsome sight indeed, but even if were true (which it wasn’t of course – they eat mainly insects and occasionally small mammals which were far more likely to cause damage to coffee plants than the owls were) it seems a little unfair to kill them for it. To add insult to injury, so widespread was this bizarre belief that – again according to owlpages.com – folk songs were written on the subject. And appallingly bad ones at that:
you’re a gentleman
you just want to eat a rat,
then the rat set up a trap,
he eats the coffee grains
and people blame you.”
Possibly in Spanish and set to a guitar that sounds quite musical, but it’s no Woody Guthrie anthem…
Fortunately Screech-owls survived having songs sung at them and they are still described by Mark Oberle in ‘Puerto Rico’s Birds in Photographs‘ as “common in appropriate habitat”, which he goes on to say includes “Forests, woodlots, tree-filled gardens, and forest edges”.
IBAs where the Puerto Rico Screech-owl has been recorded
BirdLife International says that “the population trend appears to be stable, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations)”: they classify the species as Least Concern, though egg predation by Pearly-eyed Thrashers Margarops fuscatus have apparently been a problem for these lovely birds.
Puerto Rican Screech-owl/Múcaro Megascops nudipes nudipes
Photos copyright Alberto López-Torres, puertoricanwildlifephotography.blogspot.com
The three excellent photos above clearly show where the scientific specific name nudipes comes from: unlike many similar owls this species has unfeathered legs and feet. Visiting birders shouldn’t necessarily expect to get views as good as these incidentally – though vocal throughout the year, decades of being sung at mean that Puerto Rican Screech-owls now normally hide deep within thick foliage…(note to Wikipedia: this last comment is not entirely accurate).