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The Mexican Barred-Owl: A split too far?

Many of you navigating here will have just read Paul Hess’s “News and Notes” column in the May 2012 Birding. If not, I highly recommend taking a look. Within Paul’s article, he notes a recent scientific paper by Barrowclough et al. in which it is recommended that Barred Owl be split into Northern Barred-Owl (Strix varia) and Mexican Barred-Owl (S. sartorii). In light of that article, the IOC went ahead and split Barred Owl. Thankfully, the AOU (and, therefore, the ABA) has taken no action.

Frankly, I was disappointed to see that the IOC went ahead with this split. I believe it shows a poorly-researched approach to bird taxonomy on its part. There are two big problems with this paper that knowledgeable reviewers, beforehand (and a careful committee, afterward) should have caught. Dare I say, it reminds me of the lack of thorough peer review that allowed the now-debunked Ivory-billed Woodpecker article to be published in Science. I sincerely hope that allowing seeming shortsightedness and favoritism to flourish in the place of careful analysis so that a journal can “get the scoop” is the exception with scientific journals. A friend tells me that a “publish and get comments” system is now being used in the field of high-energy physics, whereby papers are initially published online and considered a draft. Comments are received from interested colleagues and the public. They are either debunked, or the paper is altered to reflect valid criticisms. Only after criticisms are addressed is the paper considered finished and published. What an enlightened process! To quote Jon Dunn, “But I digress.”

First, the Barrowclough paper only sampled one of the alleged (more on that later) three allopatric populations of Barred Owl in Mexico–the Jalisco population. Furthermore, it is not the population from which the type specimen of sartorii comes, so who’s to say the birds they sampled even actually are sartorii? (The type specimen is from Veracruz.) One would think that should call for a pretty major mention in the paper. Alas, it didn’t get one.

643nabcoverlgSecond, since being correctly identified by Rich Hoyer in 2010, Fulvous Owls have been being seen, photographed, and recorded easily from at least two locations in the Sierra Madre Oriental of Oaxaca over the last three years–within the alleged range and habitat of Barred Owl. Fulvous Owl was not previously thought to occur “north” of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In North American Birds [64(3): 505] Héctor Gómez de Silva remarked, “it seems likely that the sartorii Barred Owls reported [in Oaxaca] in recent winters may have actually been Fulvous.” This population of Fulvous Owl may well have been misidentified as Barred Owl for the last 140 years…which should initally make one also question the identity of the supposedly adjacent Veracruz population. The presence of Fulvous Owls in Oaxaca was not even mentioned in the Barrowclough paper–a pretty egregious error considering that a Fulvous Owl from Oaxaca was featured on the cover of the Spring 2010 North American Birds!

Mexican Barred-Owl, Cinereous Owl, Sartorus’s Owl, or whatever you call it, is still an enigma, and is certainly one of the least understood avian taxa in North America. I’m not even aware of a photo of a live bird! Certainly, there is much to learn about what’s going on with “Barred Owls” in Mexico, and that is exciting.


For more on the “Barred Owl” in Mexico, check out the references provided here by Paul Hess, in chronological order.

Sclater, P. L., and O. Salvin. 1868. Descriptions of new species of birds of the families Dencrocolaptidae, Strigidae, and Columbidae. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.<>  [see p. 53 and pp. 58-59]

Baird, S. F., and R. Ridgway. 1873. On some new forms of American birds. Bulletin of the Essex Institute, Vol. 5, No. 12 <>  [see p. 200]

Ridgway,  R. 1874. A History of North American Birds, vol. 3 (Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway eds.) <>.  [see p. 29]

Ridgway, R. 1914. The Birds of North and Middle America, part 6. Bulletin of the U.S. National Museum <>.  [see pp. 647-648]

Cory, C. B. 1918. Catalogue of Birds of the Americas, part 2. Field Museum of Natural History <>.  [see p. 33]

Peters, J. L. Check-list of Birds of the World, vol. 4. 1940. Harvard University Press <>.  [see p. 162]

Binford, L. S. 1989. A distributional survey of the birds of Oaxaca. Ornithological Monographs, No. 43 <>.   [see p. 279]

Enríquez-Rocha et al. 1993. Presence and distribution of Mexican Owls: a review. Journal of Raptor Research 27:154-160 <>.  [see pp. 158-159]

Ramírez-Julián, González-García, and Reyes-Macedo 2011. Registro del búho leonado Strix fulvescens en el estado de Oaxaca, México. Record of the Fulvous Owl Strix fulvescens in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Rev. Mex. Biodivers. 82(2): 727–730. <pdf>



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Michael Retter
Michael L. P. Retter is the editor of the ABA's newest magazine, Birder's Guide, and the author of The ABA Field Guide to Birds of Illinois. When not at home gardening, Michael is often leading tours for BRANT Nature Tours in Middle America (Mexico through Panama). He currently lives with his husband, Matt, in Fort Worth, Texas. Michael also runs QBNA, the continent's informal club for LGBTQ+ birders. A former chair of the Indiana records committee, he is an eBird reviewer for Mexico, Illinois, and Indiana.
Michael Retter

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