Mar 10, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, February 2021

Is There a Screech-owl in Your Neighborhood?

If you're now wondering if you have a backyard screech-owl, the only way to find out is to get outside and search for clues. Photo by Shutterstock.

Do you have have a screech-owl living in your yard or neighborhood? You might! Unless you know what to look and listen for, you may not be aware of a screech-owl living in or near your backyard. In the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada, the eastern screech-owl is a common resident of wooded backyards, city parks, cemeteries, and almost anywhere that an old woodpecker hole, nest box, or other cavity can be found. In the West, the western screech-owl can be found in a variety of brushy or wooded habitats, excluding extreme desert and the highest elevations.

Once considered the same species, these two birds were split into separate species in the 1980s. Both eastern and western screech-owls are robin-sized birds,measuring just 10 inches from head to tail.

Gray western screech-owl.

What Do Screech Owls Eat?

Screech-owls eat a range of prey, from insects to small birds and mammals, as well as earthworms, crayfish, frogs, spiders, and even bats. Their hunting technique involves sitting on a convenient perch and watching or listening for movement. Screech-owls can swoop to the ground for prey, and they can catch insects, bats, and birds in flight.

What makes these birds so difficult to see? For one, they are almost strictly nocturnal in their activity. During the day, screech-owls roost in tree cavities, in nest boxes, or in thick cover, such as conifers or tangles of vines. On sunny winter days, they may sit at the entrance of a cavity to catch the sun's warmth, but this is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, these small owls remain hidden in order to avoid detection from crows, hawks, and other potential predators. Other, larger owls pose a nocturnal threat to these diminutive cousins. Barred, spotted, great horned, and long-eared owls have been known to eat screech-owls.

Camouflage is the other reason screech-owls are difficult to detect. When an owl is caught out in the open during the day, it hunkers up against a background of tree bark, the protective coloration of the bird's feathers making it extremely hard to discern. Even when sticking its head out of a tree hole, a screech owl may be challenging to spot—its ear tufts, when erect, can make the bird look just like a stub of a broken branch.

Courtship and Habits

During the late winter, screech-owls begin courtship by calling to each other. Contrary to its name, the screech-owl does not screech. Rather, it emits a high whinnying sound (eastern screech owl) or a series of high whistles and trills (western screech-owl). As the weather warms, screech-owls will continue calling, especially at dawn and dusk, but also throughout the night.

Gray eastern screech-owl.

Attracting screech-owls to your yard can be a long-term proposition. Begin by leaving undisturbed appropriate wooded habitat, especially if it contains hollow, dead, or dying trees. If there is no source of nesting and roosting cavities, such as old woodpecker holes, consider adding a few screech-owl boxes. Dimensions for a screech-owl box are as follows: minimum 8-by-8-inch interior floor size, with an inside height of 18 inches or more; hole size should be a 3-inch -diameter circle, and the box should be mounted at least 10 feet off the ground.

Be patient, as it may take several seasons for your owl boxes to be used. To check boxes that are mounted too high for peeking into, stand below the tree and tap on the trunk with a branch. Watch for an owl to pop its head out of the hole to determine the cause of the noise. Be careful not to disturb the owl by repeat visits to the nest box tree.

Evidence of an owl's presence can also be found in the form of pellets. These are small, compacted balls of fur, feathers, and bones that are regurgitated once the owl has finished digesting its prey. Here's how it works: A mouse, for instance, is swallowed whole by the owl. The owl's stomach then sets to work grinding and dissolving (with gastric juices) the mouse's flesh. The skull, bones, and fur—all the indigestible parts—are formed into a small pellet, which the owl regurgitates. These pellets may accumulate under a roosting or nesting cavity that is being used by owls, as will splotches of whitewash (owl poop) that are the other telltale sign of an owl's presence.

Do You Have a Screech-Owl In Your Area?

If you're now wondering if you have a backyard screech-owl, the only way to find out is to get outside and search for clues. Listen for mysterious nocturnal whinnies, whistles, and trills, and look for pellets and whitewash under any likely holes. If you find evidence, watch carefully and you may steal a glimpse of these tiny creatures of the night.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021
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    by Ironweeds, Fri, 27 Aug 2021
  • What is emptying my jelly feeder overnight.
    by Gary Vandervest, Wed, 25 Aug 2021
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