Screech Owls

Listen closely for their distinctive vocalizing and you just might manage to catch a peek of these pint-sized predators.

April 4, 2023 | | Notes from the Wild

Most of us are besotted by owls. Their wide faces and large, liquid eyes evoke oohs and ahs, and their nocturnal habits cloak them in delicious mystery. They are doggedly pursued by birding paparazzi bent on photographing them.

A species we have a good chance of fawning over in Headwaters is the screech owl. These pint-sized predators have likely carved up the entirety of our hills into hunting territories. This includes suburbia. Screech owls can sometimes be persuaded to raise a family in town if offered a large nest box.

Photo by Ian Jarvie.

A friend put up one of these in his backyard in January. By March a screech owl had found it. The owl roosts in the box during the day, but often pokes its endearing face out the entrance hole to take stock of its surroundings.

Screech owls don’t screech. They have two primary calls. One is a soothing tremolo. The other is an otherworldly wail that can provoke shivers in humans. When not vocalizing, they are often on the hunt. They prey on large insects, small rodents and songbirds.

Photo by Ian Jarvie.

Photo by Ian Jarvie.

Small birds know this and while they might cower in fear during the night, daylight emboldens them. They surround their nocturnal stalkers and scold them relentlessly. This behaviour, called “mobbing,” tells the owls, “The jig is up. We know you’re here and we won’t rest until you leave.”

Ornithologists who band birds exploit this mobbing behaviour. They play screech owl calls to attract and ensnare songbirds in mist nets.

Most Ontario screech owls have grey plumage, but about one in five are a lovely russet colour. These “red morph” screech owls are thought to be less able to withstand harsh winters, which may explain their relative scarcity in Ontario.

Owls are testimony to the power of nature to amaze and inspire. They fly through our imaginations leaving wonder in their wake.

Want to hear what a screech owl really sounds like? Click here to listen! 


About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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