I was surveying birds in Ashe County when I noticed an old woodpecker nest cavity in a snag and stopped along the road for a closer look. It was January, freezing cold, with 4 four inches of snow on the ground, and the cavity looked like a good place for a screech owl to roost. So, I played a cell-phone app recording of a screech owl’s song and sure enough, a tiny owl popped up like a Jack-in-the Box.
Mind you, I’ve tried the same strategy many times over the years and that’s the only time I got the desired results. And it sure was rewarding.
Screech owls use abandoned woodpecker nests not only for winter roosting but for nesting as well. Nest cavities of this sort are less prone to invasion by predatory birds, and the surrounding wood offers a measure of insulation, making it easier for parent owls to keep eggs and hatchlings warm. In fact, not just woodpecker nests, but any cavity of similar dimensions and location will do — even a wood duck nest box in a marsh.
The eastern screech owl is one of four species of owls found throughout North Carolina. The others are the barred owl, the barn owl (which is in steep decline because of the loss of habitat and nesting sites), and the great horned owl, the largest of the four species.
Two other owl species are found in the state, but with much narrower distribution. The northern saw-whet owl is found almost exclusively at high elevation in the mountains, and the short-eared owl occurs along the coast in winter.
There are 23 species of screech owls, all in the genus Megascops. This generic name is derived from Greek where mega means large, and scops means owl. The name seems rather ironic, though, since screech owls are by no means large owls. Compare the eastern screech owl at 6 ounces with the great horned owl that averages nearly 10 ounces and the snowy owl at 64 ounces, or more than 10 times the weight of this, the smallest of the eastern owls.
The size of a softball but fluffier, it would fit neatly in your hand were it not for needle-like talons.
Within each owl species, adults are colored the same, whether male or female. However, the eastern screech owl violates that rule — some are gray some brown and some a rusty red.
Not a picky eater, the eastern screech owl has a remarkably broad diet which includes mice, voles, songbirds, lizards, toads, bats, moths, salamanders, snails, earthworms, crayfish, even small fish it catches by wading into shallow water.
As with most nocturnal owls, it’s usually easier to hear one than to see it, and, as the name implies, screech owls have very distinctive voices.
However, few listeners would call it a screechy song. Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds describes the eastern screech owl’s song as a strongly descending whistled whinny, while Peterson’s Field Guide has it as a mournful whinny or wail.
Thoreau offered perhaps the most overblown interpretation when he described it as “a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers."
A second vocalization is described as a tremolo, a long, whistled trill on one pitch. The two calls are often delivered back to back.
If you’re really interested in owls, get a copy of the Peterson Reference Guide to the Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul. It isn’t nearly as dry as “reference guide” may imply.
To hear the screech owl’s song, go to allaboutbirds.org, search on Eastern screech owl and click Sounds.
This website has instructions for building nest boxes, as well.
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