Alabama's Eastern Screech Owl | Great Days Outdoors

The Eastern screech owl’s small size makes it susceptible to injury by automobiles.

Eastern Screech Owl

Many a campfire ghost story has been enhanced by the haunting wail of the Eastern screech owl. Strictly nocturnal, the Eastern screech owl is probably the best-known small owl in eastern North America thanks to its soft, mournful whinny that can be heard most often during the fall and spring months.

Both male and females make calls—the most often being an even-pitched trill called a “bounce song” or tremolo and a shrill descending whinny. Pairs or families use the tremolo call to keep in touch with each other.

As one of eight Alabama owl species, the little screech owl is known by a variety of names, including the gray owl, little owl, little dukelet, little-horned owl, mottled owl, red owl, scratch owl, shivering owl, squinch owl and whickering owl.

The Eastern screech owl is the smallest owl with ear tufts in the eastern U.S.  The body size ranges from 6.3 to 9.8 inches. Females weigh approximately 6.8 ounces and males weigh 5.9 ounces. Its wingspan measures between seven and 10 inches.

The screech owl’s small size makes it susceptible to injury, especially by automobiles.

Scottie Jackson, director of education and outreach for the Alabama Wildlife Center, says volunteers at the center care for 20 to 50 injured screech owls a year. He confirms that impact from vehicles is the most frequent cause of injury.

Jackson says volunteers also care for owls with a variety of other injuries and illnesses, ranging from gunshots to poisonings, but car strikes are the most common.

“Screech owls hunt for insects along roadways at dawn and dusk,” Jackson says. “The streetlights attract large insects, which in turn attract screech owls. Screech owls have a poor peripheral vision, and because they are so focused on catching the insect in front of them, they often don’t see the cars that are flying down the road. Also, just like deer, when a screech owl looks directly into the headlights of a car, it becomes stunned and doesn’t have the wherewithal to move.”

Jackson says volunteers also care for owls with a variety of other injuries and illnesses, ranging from gunshots to poisonings, but car strikes are the most common.

But, she says the rehabilitation center doesn’t care for as many screech owls as other species because their small size makes it less likely that injured screech owls are discovered by people willing to help.

“They have remarkable camouflage and they’re very small, so injured Eastern screech owls are not easy to spot on the side of the road. They also can’t sustain long without food, and their small size makes them more susceptible to predation.”

Jackson says if you find an injured Eastern screech owl, to get it to a dark, quiet place as quickly as possible. You can use a blanket to pick it up and then transfer it to a box. Once the owl is secure, take it to your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center.

Although its remarkable camouflage is partly to blame for injured birds not being located and helped, it’s also one of the owl’s coolest traits.

The small owl comes in two color phases—a brown or rufous phase that is mottled reddish brown with gray.  Sometimes the owl will be both gray and brown.

It makes its home in open deciduous woods, woodlots, suburban areas, lake shores and old barns.  The owl roosts during the day in hollow trees facing out into the bright daylight. While Eastern screech owls can see in bright daylight, they prefer to remain hidden in dark corners of old buildings or other dark areas.  If they are spotted during daylight hours, they’ll freeze in an upright position relying on their coloration to escape detection.

Using their straight perch-to-prey strikes, screech owls eat a variety of creatures.  They most often hunt soon after dusk for insects, frogs, salamanders, rodents, crayfish, snakes, lizards, fish, snails, scorpions, spiders, crickets, ants, cicadas, and moths.

They’ll also kill a variety of small birds with their needle-like talons.

The Eastern screech owl usually lays three to four eggs in an old tree cavity or in a bird box without a nest lining. They may also lay eggs in hollow stumps or in abandoned nesting homes in sycamores, elms, dead pines and oaks.

Owls lay their eggs between February and July, with the female largely handling the 26-day incubation period.  The male may roost in the nesting hollow during the day while the female is incubating. He will provide food for the female while she incubates.

The young owls typically take flight about 28 days after hatching, but they’ll remain dependent on the parents for eight to 10 weeks.

Eastern Screech owls aggressively defend their nests and will sometimes strike a human on the head as he or she passes nearby at night. But if a screech owl feels threated or scared, it becomes anything but aggressive.

“Screech owls are a prey item for many types of animals,” Jackson says. “And they’ve developed an effective method for remaining undetected. Instead of flying off or fighting an aggressor, the screech owl will sit quietly relying on its camouflage to conceal it. It will even shut its eyes, so as to blend perfectly in with its surroundings.”

Jackson is fond of screech owls and encourages anyone who finds an injured one to take it to the nearest rehabilitation center. She also recommends that people keep their cats indoors, as they are a threat to all types of bird species and young owls learning to fly are especially vulnerable.

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