Little Owl, Big Attitude

By Matt Seek | February 1, 2014
From Xplor: February/March 2014

The only thing small about the eastern screech-owl is its size. From beak to tail, robins and blue jays stand taller than these stocky, 8-inch owls. But, when it comes to their voices, appetites, and attitudes, screech-owls like to live large.

Country Owl, City Owl

Screech-owls live anywhere they can find food and a place to nest. They’re even found in city parks and wooded suburbs. They prefer to nest in hollow trees or holes hammered out by woodpeckers. But when these aren’t around, screech- owls will use birdhouses, tool sheds, and mailboxes.

Owl Talk

Screech-owls have loud voices and lots to say. They trill, whinny, bark, chuckle, peep, hiss, hoot, and — when they’re startled or angry — screech, of course. Owl couples trill back and forth to each other when they’re courting and while they’re searching for a place to nest. If you hear this after-dark duet, it’s easy to know hooo’s who: Males, though smaller, have deeper voices than females.

Now You See Me. Now You Don't.

After a hard night of hunting, a screech-owl just wants some shut-eye. To hide from hungry hawks and fussy songbirds, the sleepy owl closes its big yellow eyes and pretends to be a branch. The camouflage pattern of its feathers makes the owl all but invisible against a barky background. Some screech-owls take their disappearing act a feather further and raise a wing to hide their beaks.

Food Fight

Young screech-owls lead rough lives. Nest mates fight with each other for food their dad brings back to the nest. Sometimes bigger nestlings kill and eat their smallest brother or sister. And you thought third grade was tough?

Wear Your Hard Hat

When young owls first leave the nest, mama owls defend them fiercely. Cats, squirrels, and humans who wander too close to the helpless hooters better beware! They’re likely to get dive-bombed by mom and may even be scratched on the head by her talons.

Mega Menu

When it comes to what they’ll cram down their beak holes, screech-owls aren’t picky. More than 250 kinds of critters make the menu. In fact, the list of what a screech-owl will eat is longer than that of any other North American owl. Screech-owls have even been known to tangle with small falcons, pluck fish from shallow pools, and ambush bats on the wing.

Screech-owls aren’t dainty diners. They gobble prey whole. Once the unlucky animal lands in the bird’s belly, its soft, meaty parts are quickly digested. Bones, fur, and teeth, which are too hard to digest, are barfed up a few hours later in a grayish-brown pellet. Screech-owl pellets are about the same size as the tip of your pinkie finger.

Tips for Finding Screech-Owls

  • Look for fussy birds. Songbirds swoop and squawk at owls to alert their feathered friends of the predator’s whereabouts and to teach young birds that owls are dangerous.
  • Search the base of trees for owl pellets and “whitewash” (owl poop). If you find either, look up. An owl may be sleeping up there.
  • Listen for screech-owl calls at night. Screech-owls are especially noisy during full moons and before stormy weather.
  • Inspect tree cavities on cold, sunny days. You may find a screech-owl at the entrance soaking up sun.

And More...

This Issue's Staff

David Besenger
Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White