Birdwatch

To Screech His Own

The spine-tingling call of the Eastern screech owl belies its size and appeal

By Susan Campbell

Listen! An eerie trill or spooky shriek from out of the darkness at this time of year just might indicate the presence of an Eastern screech owl. Territorial adults readily use a mix of screams, tremolos on different pitches and long trills to advertise the boundaries of their home range. And their vocalizations are remarkably loud for a bird that stands only about 8 inches high. They are commonly found in forests all over North
Carolina, but they particularly thrive in thick pine stands, so much of our Piedmont habitat is ideal for them. Furthermore, they are with us year-round.

Eastern screech owls can be either a dull gray or a rich rufous color, with tufts of feathers on the head giving them an eared or horned appearance. But don’t expect to spot them easily, even though they roost during daylight hours. Their dark splotches and vertical striping along the breast and belly provide excellent camouflage against their favored roosting spot, trees, where they may be sitting close to the trunk or peering out of a cavity.

As is the case with most raptors, males are larger than females. Nonetheless, females have higher pitched calls. Your best bet for spotting one is to watch for belligerent crows or flocks of songbirds signaling their presence by frenzied flight and raucous calling.

This species is found throughout the Eastern United States, as well as along the Canadian border and in easternmost Mexico. Although they may wander somewhat outside the breeding season, Eastern screech owls are not migratory. These diminutive owls breed in the springtime. A female simply lays up to six white eggs on the substrate at the bottom of the cavity. Incubation takes about a month and then the young birds take another month to develop before they fledge. All this time, while the female remains on the nest, her mate will hunt nightly for the growing family. Pairs, who usually stay together for life, favor old squirrel or woodpecker holes, as well as purple martin houses and the occasional wood-duck boxes. Pairs of screech owls will readily take to boxes made to their exact specifications, not surprisingly.

Eastern screech owls eat a wide variety of prey. Rodents make up a large portion of their diet, but they also readily catch frogs, large insects and other invertebrates including crayfish and even earthworms. They have been known to also feed on roosting birds and the occasional bat. Screech owls are very much at home feeding on mice, rats or voles that can be found around bird feeders at night — as well as moths and beetles attracted to outside lights. Screech owls are patient, adopting a sit-and-wait strategy before pouncing on their prey and swallowing them whole. Owl gizzards are specially adapted to digesting the soft parts of the creatures they eat and then balling up the bones, fur and other indigestible bits into an oval mass that is regurgitated each day. Favored roost sites or nest cavities can be found by locating piles of these masses (or pellets, as they are referred to) on the forest floor. Unfortunately screech owls often hunt along roadsides and are prone to being hit by cars as they swoop low over the pavement to grab a meal.

But overall Eastern screech owls are a successful species that has adapted well to the changes humans have made to the landscape. So spend some time outside after dark and train your ears for the trill or tremolos of our Eastern screech owl. These cute little birds are anything but scary once you get to know them!  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com.

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