Since the pre-Columbian period, night birds or múcaros have been linked to beliefs about death and the origin of life. Owls played a central role in Taino iconography in the Greater Antilles, and are recurring symbols on vessels, sculptures and ceremonial masks, as well as in petroglyphs at the entrances of shelter caves. Even today, beliefs persist in the Hispaniolan countryside that owls have supernatural powers and are enemies of humans. The mysticism associated with our ashy-faced o wl is probably due as much to its nocturnal habits as to its striking and solemn facial features. Like the other members of the Tytonid owl family, this bird has a heart-shaped facial disc, a strong curved beak, and a “cat face” with large eyes directed straight forward.
It has long legs with strong feet and sharp talons. As indicated by its common name, the most notable feature of our owl is the ashy-gray color of its face which contrasts with the rest of its reddish brown plumage, the belly mottled with black. Undeniably, this is one of the most majestic birds of the island, and similar to some other endemic birds, our owl depends on cracks and cavities in trees or caves to nest in.
At nightfall, owls use their superb night vision, but more often rely entirely on their hearing, one ear positioned slightly higher than the other in the skull, to help locate their prey with deadly precision. This owl may well be the most effective hunter of our island. When it detects its prey, it takes off in a burst of rapid yet silent wing beats to catch whatever it seeks – bats, birds, reptiles, amphibians – but chiefly, introduced rats and mice. The control of rodents by a single owl – which can consume up to 5,000 rodents in a year, provides an incredible service to people, as these pests damage crops and transmit many diseases to humans.
“Look, the owl is a bird that flies and is not dangerous ... I like the wickedness of this owl. It’s so very simple ... This owl kills mice.” Anonymous cacao farmer
“... by following the cosmic flight of the owl, the behiques could see and talk to the spirits and enter the region of the dead to rescue the soul of an ailing person, who had been captured by evil spirits, and return the soul to its body, thus healing the patient.” Manuel García Arévalo
Our endemic owl prefers forested environments at low elevations, although it also reigns in cacao farmlands and in large African palm plantations where it readily finds a great variety of prey. In our daily lives, we are more likely to find this bird in the city of Santo Domingo and its surroundings, in the area of Samaná and the peninsula of Barahona. Even though owls help maintain the natural balance of forests, they are still denounced in the Hispaniolan countryside. Although some may consider the long harsh scream of our owl as an ill omen, this chilling call is a signal for excitement and reassurance for the many naturalists, photographers and birdwatchers who appreciate their encounter with this magnificent Hispaniolan endemic.