For the Birds Radio Program: Eastern Screech-Owl

Original Air Date: Feb. 26, 1999

This is about a tiny own that fuels the human imagination. (4:45) Date verified.

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One of the tiniest of all meat-eaters can weigh less than a quarter-pound patty without the bun, cheese, or pickle, yet takes on animals from insects, mice, and sparrows to flying squirrels and even, in rare but documented cases, flickers. The diminutive Eastern Screech-Owl makes up for its lack of size in feistiness, spirit, and sheer hunger.

Our American screech owls are close relatives of European Scops-Owls, both looking a bit like miniature Great Horned Owls. The feather tufts atop their heads and their yellow eyes give them a cat-like aspect, yet those forward-facing eyes and the placement of their beak where our nose would be give them a human-like aspect as well. That odd combination, along with their weird vocalizations and nocturnal habits, contributed to ancient superstitions and religious symbolism about these little owls in both Europe and America. Most cultures throughout the planet connect owls with the world of darkness, and with death. But many of those same cultures also associate owls with wisdom, benevolence, and even protectiveness. Perhaps owls are the original inspiration of the paradoxical angel of death.

Seeing an owl, we are bewitched, moved by something of magic and mystery in the encounter that runs deeper than the mere sound and appearance of the bird. Could it be because owls look back at us, maybe seeing themselves mirrored in our forward-facing eyes and nose where a beak should be? Most of the owls we encounter meet our eyes, contributing to a feeling of spiritual connection that we seldom feel with even the most beloved backyard robins and orioles.

The Twin Cities and Eau Claire are about as far as screech owls usually venture in Wisconsin or eastern Minnesota. March is when they begin calling seriously, and if they’re near they’ll often respond to recordings or imitations of their call. The most effective imitation is a long whistle on one pitch with enough spit in your mouth to produce a trill. Easier and sometimes almost as effective is to “gargle” on one relatively high pitch. Practice at home, and then head south for an after-dark owling adventure. Try any mature deciduous woods or park with abundant shade trees.

Never imitate or play recordings of screech owls, or saw-whets or boreals for that matter, after you hear a Barred or Great Horned Owl hoot. If a little owl answers, or even flies about trying to figure out who its competitor is, the larger owl may find and kill it.

To encourage any of these little owls to settle in your backyard, set out a nest box with a three-inch entrance hole. Also spread a layer of sawdust at the bottom. Carrol Henderson provides plans in his excellent book, Woodworking for Wildlife, published by the Minnesota DNR. Even if you don’t attract an owl, setting out a nest box can be well worth the effort—kestrels or flickers may take it, or flying squirrels. And if a tiny owl does move in, your efforts will be richly rewarded.

I recently read an online BirdChat account of Pennsylvania birder Ted Floyd moving to the Great Basin Bird Observatory in Reno, Nevada, where he would no longer see Eastern Screech-Owls. Floyd usually contributes lists and other straightforward data, but when he wrote about his final encounter with Pennsylvania owls, his prose became as evocative as the birds he was watching. He:

maneuvered about the bird, carefully and respectfully, until it was directly backlit by the waxing moon. There sat the owl, prim yet august, sharply silhouetted in a shining halo of burnished silver. It was a bewitching moment, and it was emblematic of so much that I seek in birding—the apotheosis of the ordinary, the mundane transmuted into the magical.

Seek out a screech owl this month and share that magical, transforming moment. As Ted Floyd wrote, “An encounter with a screech-owl, however distant and fleeting, can enrich and enchant, profoundly and permanently so.”