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It’s in your nature: Eastern screech owl

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    A gray phase female screech owl “hunkers down” in her nest box among her three down-covered young.

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    This red phase screech owl has his ear tufts completed extended. Note the owls’ ears are on the sides of its head. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published April 26. 2019 12:42PM


Not much bigger than a robin, the screech owl is a resident bird in the Times News coverage area. In reality they average about 8 to 9 inches in size, have a wingspan of about 21 inches and tip the scales at 8 ounces. They are patterned with a mottled, bark-type plumage that allows them to almost become part of the tree.

Quite unusual for bird species, they have two color “morphs.” They are either mostly gray or rufous (brown/reddish). In a clutch of four eggs, two offspring could be gray and two white, or all four could be one color.

At one time I erected and monitored about a half-dozen nest boxes, and usually one or two were occupied by a nesting pair. They do prefer a habitat with an open understory and have a preference to be near a water source such as a small stream or spring. The one nest box that was utilized the most was in a pole timber lot near a beautiful small stream at the base of the Blue Mountain. The other was in a woodlot near a summer cabin close to Mahoning Creek.

I would accompany Dave Hawk and his environmental science students to both of these areas after dark and we were usually successful calling one or both of the owl pairs close to our vehicles where we played screech owl calls. Screech owl “moms” were very tolerant when once or twice in their nesting time I would lift the lid and gently move her aside to count how many white, rather rounded, eggs she was incubating.

Early in my teaching career, some of my students and their parents would meet me at one of the locations where they watched me band the owlets and got rewarded by holding the birds until I placed them back in the nest box.

Two dangers await the screech owl. First, larger owls, in particular the great horned owl, will eat them. The second involves a habit the owls have. They generally fly low through a forest, woodlot or across a street. Car strikes claim a number of screech owls.

A “few years back” I found an injured bird and took it home. (There were no animal rehabs at that time.)

A large appliance box was its home for at least a month. It appeared to have lost vision in one eye and couldn’t fly. It did gobble down night crawlers and the minnows I caught from Mahoning Creek. I bought him some time, but the injuries were too severe.

Screech owls generally nest in abandoned woodpecker holes, so if you have any wooded property, maybe that diseased or rotting tree can remain standing a few years longer. I see and hear fewer screech owls now and I might assume, with no supporting data, an increasing number of great horned owls may cause them to find safer havens.

I do think that wooded areas in or near towns may actually be good locations to still find these neat nocturnal birds. Try to find an online site to listen to the screech owl’s quavering call.

Test your outdoor knowledge: Screech owls eat all but the following: A. brook trout, B. crayfish, C. birds, D. mice, E. mushrooms

Last week’s trivia: Contrary to its name, sensitive fern survives well in sunny, drier conditions.

Contact Barry Reed at


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