Thursday, February 16, 2012

False Eye Spots in Northern Pygmy Owl and Others...

Northern Pygmy Owl with Prey. Used with permission. © Tania Simpson
One nice winter treat birders and nature enthusiasts get to enjoy (if they are lucky) is the beauty and mystery of owls. Kevin Norris recently proposed an eloquent explanation for the Great Grey Owl that was in Kingsville earlier this year. He told an interviewer from the Toronto Star:  "the owl arrived to share a sort of metaphysical gift from Mother Nature" (Tapper). Well said Kevin!

Northern Pygmy Owl Showing its False Eye Marks  Used with permission. © Tania Simpson
On that note, I am following a great nature photographer named Tania Simpson through Flickr. A recent photo that she posted of a Northern Pygmy Owl (photographed in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia) just blew me away. She graciously granted me permission to use her images on my blog.  The owl in itself is a breathtaking photo, but the false eye marks on the back of the Pygmy Owl's head somehow really took me aback (see 2nd photo above). Feel free to check out her flickr account at this link: Flickr: Through Tania's Eyes'.

One interesting thing about false eye marks is: Does the bird even know it has those marks on the back of its head? It may not even know, considering owls would never see themselves in a two directional mirror. The only testament these owls have to their false eye marks is their own chance occurrence of surviving in the wild after millions of preditor-prey interactions. This mark that they are probably unaware of has worked its way from being a chance marking to being part of of the phenotypical expression of its DNA!

This is a photo of an American Kestrel that is showing its false eye/beak plumage on the back of its head is a less stunning example of this phenomenon.This photo was taken in Jan 2012 near Point Pelee.

David Sibley (Sibley) has blogged about false eye marks on several occasions and even blogged about an owl photo I had taken. He agrees that there seems to be obvious eye marks on this Eastern Screech Owl, even though there is not much literature that I could find on the web or in my field guides making mention to it. These plumage marks are on the front of the owl, protecting it while it is sleeping during the day. Spending most of its sleeping time in a tree hole, its eye marks are in front! Note the dark eye marks below its real, closed eyes.

Chance Markings on this Eastern Screech Owl?

Flickr user Bernie Monette has a Screech Owl photo that has these similar markings as shown at this link. After taking a second look, those marks show up 2" below its eyes, closer to its breast. Let me know if you find any other Eastern Screech Owls with such marks!

Good birding!


Sibley David, "Still more examples of false faces in birds", The Sibley Guide Blog, Feb 7, 2011, WEB, Feb 12, 2012,

Simpson Tanya, Pygmy Owl Photos, Obtained: Feb 12, 2012, Web Image,

Tapper Josh, "Great grey owl ruffles feathers in Kingsville, Ont.", The Toronto Star, Jan 12, 2012, WEB, Feb 12, 2012,

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see a hiatus post from you Dwayne. Interesting stuff, especially considering how relatively unexamined this phenomenon seems to be. I actually noticed it on a Snowy seen last weekend. Perhaps I'll dig up that photo.

    What's most curious to me is how the false face occurs in predator species as often (or more often) as in prey...



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