Divided by scientists into six geographical subspecies across its broad range, the spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) is the only owl species known to permanently inhabit the rainforests of the Amazon basin. It is named for the white feather markings clearly visible on its dark-feathered face, which partially encircle the eyes and extend downwards as far as the bird’s cheeks. It has a rounded head and no ear tufts, and its eyes are a bright yellow-orange. Its upper parts are dark brown, while its breast and belly are pale yellow.
The larger great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) has been known to venture into rainforest habitats, but only rarely, and it therefore cannot be described as a true rainforest owl.
Endemic to the Neotropics, the spectacled owl’s range extends from Mexico down through the Americas as far as northwest Argentina. Across its range, the spectacled owl’s preferred habitat is dense primary lowland rainforest, and they tend not to venture into higher subtropical montane forest. Spectacled owls only tend to stray into sparser secondary forest when hunting, and are only seen rarely in more open habitats, such as savannah or dry forests.
The spectacled owl is the largest tropical owl species in the world. Females are larger than males. An adult female may grow to weigh up to 1.25 kilograms (2.75 pounds), while males will only grow to a maximum weight of around 1.07 kilograms (2.39 pounds). Adult spectacled owls range from 43 to 52 centimeters in height (16 to 20.5 inches).
In common with other owl species, spectacled owls are solitary birds and are most active at night. Like other owls, they are efficient hunters, swooping down from perches to catch their prey. The preferred prey of spectacled owls varies considerably across their extensive range. They have been known to hunt several species of bats, as well as other nocturnal mammals, including rodents. They have also been known to take small monkeys, particularly tamarins. Spectacled owls have even been reported as successfully hunting prey larger than themselves, such as agoutis, opossums, and the three-toed sloth. They will also feed on large insects and spiders.
The spectacled owl can be heard calling on windless, moonlit nights in the rainforest. It does not hoot, but instead produces a guttural knocking or tapping sound. The males are more vocal than the females, using calls made from perches in the rainforest’s tallest trees to stake out their territory.
Females also call, however, and in the breeding season birdwatchers have reported hearing spectacled owls engage in duets sung by breeding pairs. As solitary, unsocial birds, spectacled owls only come together to reproduce. The female will lay one or two eggs and be almost entirely responsible for incubation. If two eggs are laid, usually only one of the chicks will survive to adulthood. While their life expectancy in the wild has not been established, in captivity spectacled owls have been known to live for up to thirty-five years.