Research published recently in Zootaxa details the finding of two species of screech owls that live in the Amazon and Atlantic forests. Both newly described species are under threat and both have been classified already as critically endangered.
"Screech owls are considered a well-understood group compared to some other types of organisms in these areas," says study author John Bates, who is a curator of birds at Chicago’s Field Museum. "But when you start listening to them and comparing them across geography, it turns out that there are things that people hadn't appreciated. That's why these new species are being described."
"Not even professional ornithologists who have worked on owls for their entire lives would agree about the actual number of species found in this group, so a study like ours has been awaited for a really long time," adds lead researcher Alex Aleixo, who is a curator of birds at the Finnish Museum of Natural History in the University of Helsinki.
The newly categorized species had been previously labeled within the species of the Tawny-bellied Screech Owl and the Black-capped Screech Owl, found throughout South America. However, after many years of fieldwork, mostly conducted at night, due to the owls’ nocturnal tendencies, the team was able to delineate them as completely new species.
The fieldwork in itself was nothing short of climbing Mount Everest, given that the birds live in trees a hundred feet tall. "To draw the birds out, we used tape recordings," explains Bates. "We'd record their calls and then play them back. The owls are territorial, and when they heard the recordings, they came out to defend their territory." In the end, they were left with 252 specimens, 83 tape-recordings, and 49 genetic samples from across the range of the Tawny-bellied Screech Owl complex in South America.
Bates says that they are cousins of the Eastern Screech Owls found in the US. "They're cute little owls, probably five or six inches long, with tufts of feathers on their heads," says Bates. "Some are brown, some are gray, and some are in between."
Co-author Jason Weckstein adds that although the discovery is exciting, it points toward the need for forest conservation policies that favor biodiversity preservation. "Both new species are threatened by deforestation," says Weckstein. "The Xingu Screech Owl is endemic to the most severely burned area of the Amazon by the unprecedented 2019 fires, and the Alagoas Screech Owl should be regarded as critically endangered given the extensive forest fragmentation in the very small area where it occurs," he concludes.