Eastern Screech Owl

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Corresspondent

Most of the avid birders I know including myself keep "Year Lists" where we record all of the birds we see (or hear) each year. Owls are most often heard, not seen because they are nocturnal. The Eastern Screech Owl, once called the Common Screech Owl, is one of the birds I have had the most trouble finding each year. In fact, one of my earlier articles was prompted because I heard a screech owl one autumn night here at my home on Cotile Lake.

The year 2013 has been an exception to the rule, in my case, of having a hard time finding Eastern Screech Owls in Louisiana. I have encountered them over a dozen times and have had one homestead in my yard this fall.

All birders know the Eastern Screech Owl call because most either imitate it or use playback of its tremulous, shivering notes to attract songbirds. Both trills and whinnies make up the striking call. The hand-sized "eared" owls hunt and consume songbirds ranging in size from jays and robins to sparrows and warblers. When these birds hear a screech owl call, they quickly gather to find their arch enemy. This allows birders to see and hear birds that would otherwise remain hidden.

If there is a screech owl nearby when a call is imitated or played, it will generally respond by calling and, sometimes, fly to locate its rival. My wife and I were treated to a visit by an inquisitive screech owl in June of this year when we went to North Toledo Bend State Park. I played the call and almost instantly an owl responded. In less than a minute, a tiny owl was watching my wife from less than 30 feet away.

Owl feathers are modified so that they make almost no sound when an owl is flying. So, my wife was surprised to see the owl materialize, almost by magic, in front of her. It watched her intensely with its bright yellow eyes.

Most Eastern Screech Owls are a dull gray color patterned with complex bands and spots providing for excellent camouflage. About one-third of the owls, however, are a reddish-brown color and a few are gray-brown in color.

Male Eastern Screech Owls are smaller than the females. They are aggressive hunters and feed their mates and offspring during the early to mid-spring nesting period. In addition to supplying whatever songbirds they can catch, these nocturnal predators catch lizards, frogs, small fish, crawfish, large insects, rats, and mice. The mother will tear the prey apart for its nestlings.

Eastern Screech Owls nest in cavities in trees, often made or modified by woodpeckers. And, they will use Wood Duck nest boxes for nesting. The eggs are laid on whatever is present at the bottom of the cavity. Nests can sometimes be located by finding pellets of indigestible materials on the ground below the nests. Biologists examine those pellets to learn more about the owls' prey.

Yes, there is a Western Screech Owl that closely resembles its eastern cousin but whose call differs greatly. Don't worry about mistaking the two owls because it is highly unlikely you will ever find a Western Screech Owl in our Piney Woods.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318 793-5529 • piku1@suddenlink.net