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Adults are 15–17 cm in overall length (nearly 6 inches) and are gray, brownish-gray or rufous in colour. This owl has a round white spotted head, weakly defined facial disc, and dark upper breast, wings and tail, the latter quite long compared to other owls. The eyes are yellow and the bill is yellowish-green. The bird has two black nape spots outlined in white on the back of its head, which look like eyes. The mid to lower breast is white with darker vertical streaking.
Their habitat includes temperate, subtropical and tropical moist forest, savanna, and wetlands. In Oregon and Washington they are known to nest and forage in the center of dense, continuous forests, near streams. An example of their habitat is Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. Their breeding habitat includes open to semi-open woodlands of foothills and mountains in western North America.