SIB “Bird of the week” – Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech OwlMegascops asio
Length: 6.3-9.8 in. Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz.
Wingspan: 18.9-24 in.

If you find yourself in a wooded area at night, don’t be too alarmed if you hear a haunting whinny floating across the night air. No, it’s not a ghost horse, it’s likely coming from a bird no bigger than a pint sized glass – an Eastern Screech Owl. In fact, hearing this owl is probably easier than seeing him as they’re well camouflaged and hide out in nooks and crannies of trees during the day. Your best chance of seeing one is to keep your eyes out for smaller birds causing quite the commotion. Blue Jays, Chickadees and Titmice will often mob a screech-owl (or other raptor), swooping around it with noisy calls. This can be enough of a nuisance to the owl to make him move on, and it alerts other birds to the predator’s presence.

They have two color-morphs, rufous (reddish-brown) and gray, with the rufous coloration making up one-third, and more common in the East. No other North American owl has such distinctive plumage differences. They have small ear tufts and yellow eyes, strongly streaked upperparts and finely barred and streaked underparts, giving them their excellent camouflage.

Eastern Screech Owls are found wherever trees are, from the Rocky Mountains to Canada to Mexico. Because they readily habituate to people, Eastern Screech-Owls sometimes roost and nest in human-made cavities such as bird boxes. They nest in holes and cavities but never dig a cavity themselves. They depend on tree holes opened up and enlarged by woodpeckers, squirrels or wood rot. Because old, dead or dying trees are often removed from yards, they’re sometimes short of nest sites and have been known to nest in wood piles, mailboxes, or crates left on the ground. They’re fearless defenders of their nest and will even strike unsuspecting humans on the head as they pass nearby at night.

Eastern Screech Owl pairs are usually monogamous and remain together for life. Nesting occurs between March and June. Females incubate 3-5 eggs for 30 days, feed nestlings for nearly as long, and then tend the fledglings for 8-10 weeks. Their diet is the most varied of any North American owl, to include a variety of songbirds, mice, rats, squirrels and rabbits, and a surprisingly large number of earthworms, insects, frogs and lizards. When prey is plentiful Screech-Owls store extra food in tree holes for as long as four days.

Small but mighty, Eastern Screech-Owls are mainly active at night, though they often hunt at dawn or dusk. They sit and wait in the trees for prey to pass below, then pounce from perches six to ten feet off the ground. In addition, suburban screech-owls often survive better than their rural cousins, as suburbs provide more prey and fewer predators. Their small size, territorial tolerance, and broadly varied diet make this owl a successful survivor.

Screech Owl at Brookgreen Gardens – Susan Markum

Screech Owls are on Seabrook Island but as stated earlier, are rarely seen. A pair raised their young in a tree near the bird feeders at Camp St. Christopher several years ago. One was heard prior to a walk in the Maintenance area but wasn’t seen. Below is a picture taken on a visit to Brookgreen Gardens in February 2023.

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Submitted by Gina Sanders
Photos from National Audubon Society and The Cornell Lab All About Birds

This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents.  When possible we will use photographs taken by our members.    Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.

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