13 Owls in Montana (With Pictures)

13 Owls in Montana (With Pictures)

Montana, a state known for its stunning landscapes and rich biodiversity, offers a unique haven for one of nature’s most intriguing creatures: the owl. These silent flyers are not just symbols of wisdom in folklore but are also key players in maintaining the ecological balance.

Across Montana’s vast wilderness, from the dense forests of the Lolo National Forest to the open grasslands of the National Bison Range, a variety of owl species have made their homes, each adapted to thrive in specific habitats.

This article delves into the (mostly) nocturnal world of Montana’s owls, exploring the diverse species that inhabit this region and offering insights into the best practices and locations for observing these majestic birds.

Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or a curious nature enthusiast, understanding the lives of Montana’s owls opens up a window to the complexities of the natural world, revealing the beauty and challenges of wildlife conservation in the Treasure State.

1. Great Horned Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Life span: 25 – 50 years
  • Size: 43 to 64 cm (17 to 25 in)
  • Weight: 1200 to 1600 g (2.64 to 3.52 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 91 to 153 cm (36 in to 60 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Great Horned Owl, a symbol of strength and agility, claims a vast range across North and South America, making its home in forests, deserts, and urban areas alike. This bird’s distinguishing features include its mottled gray-brown body, stark white throat, and deep, penetrating yellow eyes framed by tufts that resemble horns.

Its face is an arresting sight, with a reddish-brown to gray facial disk edged in a darker border, giving it a formidable appearance that commands respect in the avian world.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls don’t bother with construction plans; they prefer to take over the abandoned real estate of other birds, such as hawks, eagles, or even large squirrels’ nests. These adaptable creatures make minimal renovations, adding a personal touch with feathers and down. This strategy showcases their pragmatic nature, efficiently reusing resources available in their woodland, desert, or wetland neighborhood.

The diet of the Great Horned Owl is as diverse as its habitat. These birds are the tigers of the sky, feasting on a menu that includes rabbits, rodents, skunks, and even other raptors. Their powerful talons and silent flight make them formidable hunters, capable of catching prey in complete darkness, showcasing their adaptability and prowess in the ecosystems they inhabit.

Great Horned Owls have shown remarkable resilience, adapting to human encroachment on their territories. Their broad diet and willingness to nest in a variety of environments have kept their populations stable, making them less of a concern for conservationists. However, efforts to preserve their natural habitats continue to be essential, ensuring these majestic creatures continue to thrive across North America.

2. American Barn Owl

  • Scientific name: Tyto furcata
  • Life span: 10 years
  • Size: 34 to 38 cm (13 to 15 in)
  • Weight: 400 to 600 g (0.88 to 1.3 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 29 to 36 cm (11 to 14 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and rare

The American Barn Owl, with its ghostly appearance, is found throughout the Americas, favoring open habitats like farmland, grasslands, and wooded areas. This owl is distinguished by its heart-shaped face, which is white to light brown in color, and its body covered in a mix of soft white and golden-brown feathers.

The contrast between its dark eyes and pale face creates a striking image, making the American Barn Owl one of the most distinctive and easily recognizable of its kind.

American Barn Owl

American Barn Owls are cavity nesters, often choosing abandoned barns, hollow trees, or cliff sides for their homes. This preference for cozy, hidden spaces for raising their young speaks to their secretive nature, a whisper of mystery in the night. Their ability to adapt to human-altered landscapes showcases their resilience and the unexpected ways nature can intertwine with human life.

The American Barn Owl’s diet consists mainly of rodents, making them invaluable for controlling pest populations. Their silent flight and acute hearing enable them to hunt in the dead of night, a ghostly presence ensuring the balance of nature’s delicate web. This silent guardian’s role in agriculture highlights a symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural world.

Conservation efforts for American Barn Owls focus on educating farmers and landowners about the benefits of hosting these owls, encouraging the preservation of their natural habitats and the erection of nest boxes.

These efforts reflect a growing awareness of the importance of coexistence with our feathered allies, fostering a partnership that enriches both the natural world and our own lives.

3. Barred Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Life span: 8 years
  • Size: 40 to 63 cm (15 to 25 in)
  • Weight: 610 to 1,150 g (1.34 to 2.54 lb)
  • Wingspan: 96 to 125 cm (38 to 49 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and uncommon

Roaming the dense woodlands of eastern North America and parts of the Pacific Northwest, the Barred Owl is known for its distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call. This owl’s plumage is a rich brown and white, barred on the chest and streaked on the belly, which gives it its name.

Its round head showcases dark brown eyes framed by a slightly lighter face, creating a striking contrast that enhances its wise and penetrating gaze.

Barred Owl

Barred Owls are forest dwellers, finding solace in the dense canopy where they nest in hollow trees. Their preference for ancient trees as homes speaks to their connection with the timeless beauty of old-growth forests, a living link to the past. These owls’ nesting habits, a blend of tradition and adaptation, reflect the enduring nature of the forest itself.

A Barred Owl’s diet is as varied as the forest’s bounty, including small mammals, birds, and even fish. Their role as nocturnal hunters adds a layer of mystery to the forest’s nighttime symphony, a reminder of the wildness that thrives in the shadows. This diversity in diet showcases the owl’s adaptability and its integral role in the forest ecosystem.

Conservation efforts for Barred Owls include protecting old-growth forests and monitoring populations to understand their dynamics better. The challenge of habitat competition with Spotted Owls has added complexity to conservation strategies, highlighting the delicate balance of ecosystem management.

These efforts embody our growing understanding of the interconnectedness of species and the importance of thoughtful conservation practices.

4. Short-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Life span: 12 years
  • Size: 34 to 43 cm (13 to 17 in)
  • Weight: 206 to 475 g (7.3 to 16.8 oz)
  • Wingspan:  85 to 110 cm (33 to 43 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

With a presence in open country around the globe, from North America to Eurasia and parts of Africa, the Short-eared Owl thrives in grasslands and prairies. It’s easily recognized by its short ear tufts, which are often invisible, and its yellow eyes set against a pale facial disk.

The bird’s plumage is a blend of browns and tans with a streaked appearance, allowing it to camouflage seamlessly into its surroundings, a master of disguise in the daylight hours.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owls are ground nesters, laying their eggs in a simple scrape on the ground, often in tall grass to hide from predators. This no-frills approach to nesting, usually in open fields or marshes, highlights their unpretentious nature. They blend seamlessly into their environment, a testament to their humble, earthy essence.

Primarily dining on small mammals, especially voles, Short-eared Owls are a farmer’s friend, keeping rodent populations in check. Their hunting strategy, involving low, slow flights over open fields, reflects their patient and methodical approach to life, mirroring the ebb and flow of the natural world they inhabit.

Short-eared Owls face challenges from habitat loss due to agricultural development and urban sprawl. Conservation efforts for these owls include preserving and restoring natural grasslands and wetlands.

Their status as a species of concern in some areas has galvanized conservationists and bird lovers alike to rally for the protection of these open-country hunters, highlighting the interconnectedness of all creatures within an ecosystem.

5. Long-eared Owl

  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Life span: 10 – 27 years
  • Size: 31 to 40 cm (12 to 16 in)
  • Weight: 160 to 435 g (5.6 to 15.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 86 to 102 cm (2ft 10in to 3ft 4in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and uncommon

Stretching its range across the Northern Hemisphere, the Long-eared Owl prefers dense forests and woodlands. This species is noted for its long ear tufts that stand erect, giving it an alert appearance.

The owl’s plumage is a mottled blend of browns and whites, with streaks and bars that provide camouflage in its arboreal habitat. The deep orange eyes and pale facial disk make it a distinctive figure in the twilight, embodying the silent mystery of the forest.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owls are secretive nesters, often using abandoned nests of other birds within dense foliage to stay hidden from predators. This penchant for secrecy in their nesting habits mirrors their elusive nature, a shadowy figure among the leaves. Their choice of nesting sites, a strategic blend of convenience and camouflage, showcases their wisdom in adaptability and survival.

Primarily hunters of small mammals, Long-eared Owls are silent guardians of the night, their presence felt more than seen. Their diet, centered on the control of rodent populations, underscores their role in maintaining ecological balance, a discreet yet impactful presence within their habitats. This owl’s hunting prowess, a dance with the shadows, exemplifies the intricate ballet of predator and prey.

The conservation of Long-eared Owls focuses on maintaining dense woodlands and protecting nesting sites from disturbance. Their status as elusive creatures emphasizes the need for habitat conservation to ensure their secretive lives continue undisturbed. Efforts to safeguard these owls are a testament to the value of preserving the quiet mysteries of nature, ensuring the survival of these silent whisperers of the woods.

6. Northern Saw-whet Owl

  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Life span: 7 – 17 years
  • Size: 17 to 22 cm (6.7 to 8.7 in)
  • Weight: 54 to 151 g (1.9 to 5.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42 to 56.3 cm (16.5 to 22.2 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

Inhabiting forests across North America, from Canada down to Mexico, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is a diminutive but striking species. Its plumage is primarily brown with white streaks and spots, providing excellent camouflage against the bark of trees.

The bird’s large, round head features a white facial disk with brown and white streaks, and its captivating yellow eyes shine like beacons in the night, making it a mesmerizing sight for those lucky enough to spot it.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owls prefer the security of dense forests, choosing tree cavities left by woodpeckers as their nurseries. This choice reflects their love for privacy and the forest’s quiet solitude, a small, feathered embodiment of the forest’s whisper. Their nesting behavior, a delicate balance between visibility and concealment, mirrors the owl’s elusive nature.

Feasting on a diet rich in insects, small rodents, and occasionally other small birds, Northern Saw-whet Owls are the epitome of the phrase “small but mighty.” Their hunting technique, a testament to their precision and patience, showcases their role as nature’s pest control, a vital link in the ecological chain.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl benefits from conservation efforts aimed at preserving old-growth forests and managing forests sustainably. These initiatives, reflecting a commitment to protecting the owl’s woodland home, underscore the importance of conservation in maintaining biodiversity. The efforts to protect these diminutive owls highlight a broader dedication to preserving the whispers of the wild.

7. Burrowing Owl

  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Life span: 6-8 years
  • Size: 8-11 inches (20-28 cm)
  • Weight: 5.3-8.5 oz (150-240 g)
  • Wingspan: 20-24 inches (51-61 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and rare

Found in open landscapes across the Americas, the Burrowing Owl is unique for its ground-dwelling habits. This owl’s appearance is characterized by its long legs, short tail, and spotted and barred plumage in shades of brown and white. Its bright yellow eyes and white eyebrow marks give it a perpetual look of surprise.

The Burrowing Owl’s adaptability to its environment, making homes in prairie dog burrows, showcases its ingenuity and survival skills.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls take an unconventional approach to home-making, residing in underground burrows excavated by other animals. This ingenious adaptation to their open grassland and desert habitats showcases their resourcefulness and resilience.

Their underground nests, a fortress against predators and the elements, reflect the owl’s ability to thrive in seemingly inhospitable environments, a testament to nature’s ingenuity.

The diet of the Burrowing Owl is notably diverse, including insects, small mammals, and reptiles, reflecting their adaptability to the varied landscapes they inhabit. Their hunting strategy, often conducted from the ground or low perches, showcases their versatility and ingenuity, embodying the spirit of survival in the wild. This owl’s role in controlling pest populations highlights the interconnectedness of species within their ecosystems.

Conservation efforts for Burrowing Owls focus on protecting their habitat from development and ensuring the availability of suitable burrows. These initiatives reflect a growing recognition of the importance of grassland and desert ecosystems, not just for owls but for the biodiversity they support. The conservation of Burrowing Owls, a symbol of the challenges and triumphs in habitat conservation, underscores the importance of collaborative efforts to protect our planet’s natural heritage.

8. Snowy Owl

  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Life span: 9-10 years
  • Size: 20-28 inches (52-71 cm)
  • Weight: 3.5-6.5 lb (1600-2950 g)
  • Wingspan: 4.2-4.8 ft (130-150 cm)
  • Status: Vulnerable
  • State status: Migratory and uncommon

The Snowy Owl, a majestic visitor from the Arctic tundra, graces North America and Eurasia with its presence. Its stunning white plumage, sprinkled with black spots and bars, allows it to blend into the snowy landscapes of its home range.

The owl’s large, rounded head features captivating yellow eyes, which stand out against its snowy feathers, making it an iconic symbol of Arctic beauty and resilience.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls, denizens of the Arctic tundra, nest on the ground, laying their eggs in shallow scrapes. Their choice of nesting site, exposed and vulnerable, speaks to their strength and resilience, a stark contrast to the harsh landscape they call home. This nesting behavior, a testament to their adaptation to the extremes, highlights the raw beauty and toughness of Arctic life.

The Snowy Owl’s diet primarily consists of lemmings, reflecting the boom-and-bust cycle of their Arctic home. Their hunting strategy, a patient vigil over the tundra, showcases their adaptability and survival skills in a landscape both beautiful and brutal.

This owl’s role in the Arctic ecosystem, as both predator and sentinel, underscores the interconnectedness of life in one of the planet’s most extreme environments.

Conservation efforts for Snowy Owls include tracking their migrations and protecting their nesting grounds from human disturbances. Their periodic irruptions to the south, driven by prey availability, have sparked interest and concern, highlighting the need for cross-border conservation initiatives.

These majestic birds’ survival challenges underscore the global nature of conservation efforts, uniting communities in the shared goal of preserving the natural world’s wonders.

9. Great Grey Owl

  • Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
  • Life span: 8-10 years
  • Size: 24-33 inches (60-84 cm)
  • Weight: 24-60 oz (680-1700 g)
  • Wingspan: 54-60 inches (137-152 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and uncommon

Towering above its cousins, the Great Gray Owl inhabits the dense forests of the Northern Hemisphere. Its striking appearance is marked by a large, rounded head with a distinctive facial disk, framed by concentric circles of gray and white.

The owl’s plumage is a soft, patterned gray that cloaks its body, giving it a ghostly elegance as it glides silently through the woods, a true embodiment of the wild’s quiet majesty.

Great Grey Owl

Great Gray Owls, the phantoms of the northern forest, nest in large tree cavities or on the abandoned platforms of other large birds. Their preference for the serene and secluded reaches of the forest speaks to their solitary nature, a silent watcher among the trees. This owl’s choice of nesting site, a fortress amidst the whispers of the forest, reflects their status as elusive sentinels of the wild, guardians of the deep woods.

Specializing in hunting small rodents, particularly voles, Great Gray Owls are integral to controlling rodent populations in their boreal forest and mountain meadow habitats. Their hunting strategy, involving hovering and plunging into snow to catch prey, showcases their unique adaptation to their cold environment.

This owl’s role in the ecosystem, a balance of grace and power, highlights the intricate web of life that sustains the wilderness.

Conservation efforts for Great Gray Owls focus on preserving their habitat in boreal forests and montane regions. These majestic birds face threats from habitat fragmentation and climate change, underscoring the need for comprehensive conservation strategies.

The story of the Great Gray Owl, a tale of resilience in the face of changing landscapes, inspires a deeper understanding of our connection to the natural world and the importance of safeguarding it for future generations.

10. Western Screech Owl

  • Scientific name: Megascops kennicottii
  • Life span: Up to 10 years
  • Size: 20-25 cm (8-10 in)
  • Weight: 170-230 g (6-8 oz)
  • Wingspan: 46-61 cm (18-24 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

Occupying woodlands and deserts of Western North America, the Western Screech-Owl is a master of disguise. Its plumage is a complex pattern of grays, browns, and whites, perfectly mimicking the bark of trees where it resides.

The bird’s round face, highlighted by ear tufts and yellow-green eyes, adds to its enigmatic presence, making it a fascinating subject for those who roam the woods at night.

Western Screech Owl

Western Screech-Owls are cavity nesters, finding solace and safety in the hollows of trees within their woodland and desert habitats. Their choice of nesting sites, cozy and hidden, mirrors their elusive nature, a whispered presence in the night.

This owl’s ability to blend into its surroundings, making a home amidst the quiet of the forest, reflects a harmonious balance with nature, a melody in the ecosystem’s symphony.

Feasting on a varied diet of insects, small mammals, and occasionally birds, Western Screech-Owls are the unseen guardians of their territories. Their hunting strategy, silent and deadly, is a dance of shadow and light, showcasing their role as nocturnal predators. This owl’s presence in the ecosystem, a delicate balance of predator and prey, highlights the intricate web of life that sustains our natural world.

Conservation efforts for Western Screech-Owls include preserving their woodland and riparian habitats and providing nesting boxes to compensate for the loss of natural cavities. These initiatives reflect a commitment to ensuring the survival of these small yet significant predators, highlighting the importance of habitat conservation in maintaining biodiversity.

The story of the Western Screech-Owl, a tale of resilience and adaptation, inspires conservationists and nature lovers alike to protect the quiet whispers of the wild.

11. Northern Pygmy Owl

  • Scientific name: Glaucidium californicum
  • Life span: Up to 7 years
  • Size: 15-18 cm (6-7 in)
  • Weight: 57-85 g (2-3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 15 inch (38 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and common

The Northern Pygmy-Owl, small in stature but fierce in spirit, makes its home in the dense forests of North America. Its plumage is a mix of browns and whites, with distinctive white spots on the back and a barred pattern on the belly.

Despite its diminutive size, the owl’s piercing yellow eyes and round, puffy face command attention, embodying the spirit of the wilderness in a compact, powerful package.

Northern Pygmy Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owls, tiny but fierce, choose tree cavities in dense forests as their nesting sites, a choice that reflects their connection to the heart of the wilderness. Their preference for the secrecy and safety of the forest’s embrace speaks to their elusive nature, a spark of wildness in the shadowy depths. This owl’s nesting habits, a blend of vulnerability and strength, showcase the delicate balance of life in the forest’s canopy.

With a diet consisting mainly of small birds and mammals, Northern Pygmy-Owls are a testament to the saying, “size isn’t everything.” Their hunting prowess, despite their diminutive size, showcases their role as efficient predators within their ecosystem.

This owl’s fearless nature, hunting even in daylight, highlights the dynamic and sometimes unexpected roles that each creature plays in the tapestry of life.

Conservation efforts for Northern Pygmy-Owls focus on protecting old-growth forests and managing forestry practices to ensure the availability of nesting sites. These initiatives underscore the importance of habitat conservation in supporting the diverse array of life within forest ecosystems. The conservation of Northern Pygmy-Owls, a narrative of resilience and adaptability, reflects a broader commitment to preserving the whispers and wonders of the natural world.

12. Flammulated Owl

  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
  • Life span: Up to 8 years
  • Size: 15-18 cm (6-7 in)
  • Weight: 57-85 g (2-3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 38-43 cm (15-17 in)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and rare

The Flammulated Owl is a tiny inhabitant of the mountainous forests of the Western United States and Central America. Its plumage is a soft blend of grays and browns, with subtle flame-like markings that give it its name.

This owl’s small, round head features large, dark eyes that absorb the night, making it a mysterious figure among the conifers and aspens it calls home.

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owls, with their preference for high-elevation forests, choose old, hollow trees for nesting, a choice that underscores their connection to the ancient rhythms of the forest. Their discreet nesting sites, hidden among the conifers, reflect a deep-seated need for privacy and the quiet of the wilderness.

This owl’s choice of home, a testament to their elusive nature, speaks to the soul’s yearning for the tranquillity and mystery of the deep woods.

Primarily insectivorous, Flammulated Owls are specialized hunters, focusing on moths and beetles. Their hunting strategy, a silent flight through the forest’s understory, showcases their role as nocturnal insect controllers. This diet, a reflection of their adaptation to the forest ecosystem, underscores the intricate connections between predator and prey, a delicate dance of life and survival in the night.

Conservation efforts for Flammulated Owls include research to better understand their population dynamics and habitat requirements. These small, elusive owls face challenges from logging and land development, highlighting the need for sustainable forest management practices.

The conservation of Flammulated Owls, a journey of discovery and protection, embodies the challenges and rewards of preserving nature’s delicate balances, a testament to the enduring spirit of conservation.

13. Boreal Owl

  • Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
  • Life span: 8-10 years
  • Size: 8-10 inches (22-27 cm)
  • Weight: 3.5-7.5 oz (100-210 g)
  • Wingspan: 20-24 inches (51-61 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and uncommon

The Boreal Owl, a secretive dweller of the northern forests, spans across North America and Eurasia. Its plumage is a rich tapestry of browns and whites, providing camouflage against the trunks of trees in its boreal habitat.

The owl’s face, with its striking white eyebrows and deep-set yellow eyes, pierces the darkness, making it a captivating presence in the silent, snowy landscapes where it hunts under the cloak of night.

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owls, secretive creatures of the northern forests, select hidden cavities in trees or abandoned nests for raising their young. This choice reflects their need for seclusion and the silent companionship of the ancient woods. Their nesting behavior, a quiet assertion of life amidst the stillness of the boreal forest, showcases the owl’s intimate relationship with the rhythms of the natural world, a symphony of life played out in the quiet of the forest.

Feeding on a variety of small mammals and birds, Boreal Owls are silent hunters of the night, their presence barely perceived but deeply felt within their ecosystem. Their diet, a testament to their adaptability and the role they play in maintaining ecological balance, reflects the interconnectedness of predator and prey, a delicate balance of survival in the hush of the boreal night.

The conservation of Boreal Owls involves protecting their forest habitats from logging and development. These owls’ reliance on old-growth forests for nesting highlights the importance of sustainable forest management practices.

The efforts to conserve Boreal Owls, a story of quiet perseverance, embody the challenges of preserving the unseen but essential threads of our natural tapestry, underscoring the importance of each creature’s role in the health of our planet.

Where to look for Owls in Montana

Montana, with its vast wilderness and diverse habitats, is a prime location for owl spotting. To find owls in Montana, timing and location are key. Owls can be found in various habitats across the state, including forests, grasslands, and along river corridors. Since owls are primarily nocturnal, the best time to observe them is at dusk or during the night. Listening for their calls can be a good way to locate them.

Here are four great areas in Montana for owl spotting:

  • National Bison Range – Located near Moiese, this area provides a mix of open grasslands and forested areas, ideal habitats for burrowing owls and great horned owls.
  • Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge – Situated near Stevensville, this refuge offers riparian habitats along the Bitterroot River, perfect for spotting barred owls and great gray owls.
  • Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges – These refuges, located in the Mission Valley, are excellent for observing short-eared owls, especially during twilight hours when these birds are more active.
  • Lolo National Forest – Covering a significant portion of western Montana, Lolo National Forest’s diverse ecosystems are home to many owl species, including the northern spotted owl and the snowy owl in winter months.

When searching for owls, it’s important to minimize disturbance. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to observe from a distance, and avoid using flash photography at night. Listening for distinctive owl calls can also guide you to their location. With patience and respect for wildlife, spotting owls in Montana can be a rewarding experience for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike.


In the heart of Montana’s diverse landscapes, owls continue to captivate and intrigue us with their mysterious ways. Through conservation efforts and a growing appreciation for these nocturnal guardians, we can ensure that the silent symphony of owl calls remains an enduring part of Montana’s natural heritage for generations to come.

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