Oct 17, 2014 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2014

Is There a Screech-Owl In Your Neighborhood?

The best ways to distinguish eastern and western screech-owls are by voice and location. The ranges of the two species don't overlap—except in west-central Texas.
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Can you identify the owl above? Eastern and western screech-owls are nearly identical. Until 1983, they were thought to be the same species. DNA tests showed they are not.

Most eastern screech-owls are browner than their western cousins, but where their ranges meet or overlap, they look most similar. Western screech-owls range from gray to brown, and, in the Pacific Northwest, even rufous. Eastern screech-owls come in the same colors, but red morphs occur throughout the species' wide range, though less commonly than gray. The gray morphs of both species are practically impossible to distinguish—except for bill color: the eastern screech-owl's is yellowish; the western's is pale gray to black.

Look at the pale bill on the bird above. That means it's an eastern screech-owl. Bill color, however, is hard to see in a nocturnal bird!

Good thing the ranges of the two species don't overlap much: Western screech-owls range west of a diagonal line that extends from southeastern Alaska along the Pacific Coast of British Columbia to the Texas Panhandle and south into Mexico. East of that line is the range of the eastern screech-owl, occupying roughly the eastern two-thirds of the United States. Both species can be found in open woodlands, including urban parks and backyards. They are very adaptable to human habitats.

The ranges of the two species overlap only in west-central Texas, where hybrids sometimes occur. If you are there, or standing on the line where the two species meet, the best way to distinguish eastern from western screech-owls is by sound.

Eastern screech-owls have a descending whinny that sounds like that of a tiny horse, as well as a long, whistled trill on one pitch. Western screech-owls give an accelerating series of short whistles, reminiscent of a bouncing ball as it comes to rest, that descends slightly at the end. It also emits a two-note whistled trill. Neither species screeches, but both bark and chuckle.

Both species are about as tall as a robin, but shaped more like a pint jar—with ear tufts. Regardless of color, screech-owls' plumage provides effective camouflage. Even when perched on an exposed limb or snag, they can look like a broken branch.

Screech-owls eat a variety of smaller critters: small rodents, moths, earthworms, crayfish, frogs, small fish, and even small songbirds.

Both species will occupy nest boxes. If you have a lot of trees in your neighborhood, odds are, you have a screech-owl for a neighbor. Consider installing a suitable nest box in your yard: screech-owls readily inhabit them, especially where natural cavities—holes in big trees—are scarce. Outside of nesting season and especially in winter, an owl might use a nest box as a daytime roosting spot.

Depending upon latitude and elevation, screech-owls begin nesting in late winter or early spring. From start to finish, nesting takes about 18 weeks. Females alone incubate three or four eggs for a month, while males deliver food.

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