The Rainbow Owl

Photo circulating via social media purports to depict the rare rainbow owl, an almost-extinct species native to China and the western U.S.
Photo circulating via social media purports to depict the rare rainbow owl, an almost-extinct species native to China and the western U.S.

A viral hoax, spread via Facebook in 2012, purports to show evidence of a highly colorful "rainbow owl" that lives in China and the western United States. The picture is a fake, though there are owl species known for their unique plumage.

The Hoax

Given how easy it is to manipulate images, it's no wonder that social media sites have been flooded with doctored photos and other dubious materials. In 2012, the photo above was circulated on Facebook along with a note from an alleged scientist named Dr. Claudia Weatherfield:

"The Rainbow Owl is a rare species of owl found in hardwood forests in the western United States and parts of China. Long coveted for its colorful plumage, the Rainbow Owl was nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. ... A leading Rainbow Owl research team from the University of Montana in Missoula has earned the nickname 'The Disco Squad' for their creative use of disco music in the field. 'People think it's crazy, but we are about twice as likely to encounter owls in the field if we bring along a portable stereo,' says Herman Roark, a doctoral student working with the Disco Squad, 'And they are most responsive to disco. So far, we have had the most success with "The Hustle."'

~ Dr. Claudia Weatherfield, University of Toldeo"

The Truth

Rainbow owl? You've been pranked. The photo above, which in its original form depicted a stunning but much less colorful member of the owl family known as the barred owl (Strix varia), has been digitally altered for online consumption.

There's no such thing as a rainbow owl. Nor is there a "rainbow owl research team" at the University of Montana, much less one that uses recordings of disco music in its research. Furthermore, there is no record of any zoologist, biologist, or owl expert named Dr. Claudia Weatherfield, nor of a "University of Toldeo" [sic].

There is a University of Toledo in Ohio, of course, but you won't find any professors named Weatherfield on the faculty list there. In short, everything stated in the viral story above is pure fiction.

Real Colorful Owls

While the rainbow owl is a fantasy, there do exist in the real world some species of owl with very interesting—that is to say, beautiful—markings.

The barn owl, for example, has a white face with tan-to-gold trim and wings, and a speckled pattern on its abdomen. The feathers of the eastern screech owl, though mostly light brown, have an interesting pattern that one is tempted to call calico (though strictly speaking it is not).

The long-eared owl has what is sometimes described as a "camouflage" pattern on its body and light-tan to dark-brown coloring. True to its name, the snowy owl can be almost entirely white, though it may have dark brown mottled patterns on its wings and torso as well. In 2016, photos of a stunningly beautiful snowy owl caught by a traffic camera went viral online.

Sources

  • Hockenberry, Ashley. “Barred Owl.” The Owl Pages, www.owlpages.com/image.php?image=species-Strix-varia-4.
  • “Obed Wildlife Gallery.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/obed/learn/photosmultimedia/obed-wildlife-gallery.htm.