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Feathered Friends – Screech-owls are tiny terrors in the dark

An Eastern screech owl keeps an eye on its surroundings. (Contributed photo by Irene K-s/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

I’ve been listening to almost daily serenades by an Eastern screech-owl in the woods around my home. The wailing, trembling vocalization usually starts around dusk and can continue at intervals throughout the night. As a half moon rose in the darkening sky on the evening of Oct. 22, I paused a few moments to listen to the wailing and haunting vocalizations of two different screech-owls from the edges of the woods.

I’m glad to have this small owl as a neighbor, but I fully realize that owls have suffered from a dark reputation in certain corners. The fact is, unless you are a small rodent or some sort of insect-sized prey, the Eastern screech-owl makes an excellent neighbor.

On the verge of Halloween, a closer look at this small owl is warranted. An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually only between six and nine inches in length. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. During past trips to Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, I have enjoyed attending the daily educational programs conducted by the zoo staff at Brookgreen. These programs are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.

Two of the shows during my visit to Brookgreen back in 2019 featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would not scruple at making a meal of the much smaller owl.

Because of their small size, screech-owls prey on some comparatively small creatures, including insects, small rodents, amphibians, songbirds and reptiles. The Eastern screech-owl is also a cavity-nesting bird and will accept bird boxes provided by humans so long as the box’s entrance hole is customized to their size.

The screech-owl is the owl most likely to encounter human beings. It’s an adaptable little feathered predator, fully as at home in the backyard and garden as it is in parks and woodlands. In addition to nesting in cavities, this owl roosts in them during the daytime hours. Look for roosting screech-owls in knotholes of trees or in unoccupied wood duck boxes. Although they come in two color phases — red and gray — both variations are quite capable of camouflage. When perched or roosting, these small owls blend remarkably with their surroundings.

The Eastern screech owl also produces a variety of odd wails and other vocalizations including a distinctive, trembling “whinny” call that is often made when the owl feels curious or alarmed. It’s a wavering, haunting call that is made after dark, most often at the hours closer to dawn and dusk. Imitating the call of a screech-owl or playing a recording is also a trick for getting some shy songbirds to show themselves. Screech-owls are not-so-welcome neighbors among my yard’s songbirds, which will flock to this owl’s call and band together to “mob” the predator and try to convince it to depart the immediate area.

In addition to the Eastern screech-owl, the United States is also home to several other small owls, including Western screech-owl, Northern pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, flammulated owl and elf owl, which at six inches tall and a weight of less than an ounce qualifies as the world’s smallest owl.

When I finished listening to the recent owl duet and returned indoors for the evening, I reflected on the fact that screech-owls make good neighbors. Their prey preferences remove many nuisance insects and rodents from the habitat they share with humans as well as other wildlife. If you’re hearing an odd, winnowing call from the edge of the woods at your own home, there’s a good chance that you have one of these small owls as a neighbor. Keep alert for these small owls as we approach this year’s Halloween.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email [email protected]