10 Eastern Screech Owl Facts: sound, diet, feathers

As the winter days become shorter, you may notice an unusual call floating throughout the woodland in the evening. The call sounds similar to a horse’s whinny, but it belongs to the Eastern Screech Owl. Here are some interesting facts about them!

Eastern screech owl
Scientific name: Megascops asio
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes

1. Eastern screech owls are good at camouflage

The eastern screech owl is an expert at disguising itself. In the daytime, the owl may find a tree cavity to sleep and posture itself to fit the mouth cavity. They will elongate their bodies and flatten their feathers to seem slender (like a tree branch). With the gray and brown feathers, it can blend easily with the bark of the surrounding trees. Its camouflage is so good that you can’t recognize the owl even when it is perched on a branch.

The Eastern screech owl is one of the Best camouflage animals, you can find more related article below:

  1. Cuttlefish – the king of camouflage
  2. Chameleon – change color in a blink
  3. Stonefish – the most dangerous fish
  4. Arctic fox – change coat in season
  5. Vietnamese mossy frog – camouflage master
Eastern Screech Owl camouflage in a tree branch

They will also squint their eyes and swing back and forth to mimic the natural movements of a branch in the hopes of avoiding the detection of a promising predator.

Eastern Screech Owls are also known as the common screech owl, spirit owl, shivering owl, little horned owl, mottled owl, dusk owl, texas screech-owl, little-eared owl, little grey owl, cat owl, ghost owl, little dukelet, red owl, whickering owl, and mouse owl.

2. They are considered bad luck

Owls have been the topic of numerous contradicting views throughout history. They have been feared and despised by some civilizations. They’ve been adored, loved, and even worshipped.

There are many folklores about them, passing from generation to generation by mouth. Some said that they were connected with the witch, birth, and death. That’s why they have many names like demon and death owls, whickering owls, or spirit owls.

In some cultures, owls are believed to be sent from the spirit realm to take souls. If you heard an owl hoot in the daytime, somebody you knew would die. According to English Folklore, if an owl flies by the window of a sick person, he/she will pass away soon. In Roman legend, a witch would turn into an owl and steal newborns’ souls or drain their blood.

However, not all cultures think an owl is bad luck. These species are a symbol of wisdom and have prophesied ability in Indian folklore. In Greek mythology, owls were regarded as protectors for the armies. The bird is a sign of victory if an owl swooped over Greek soldiers right before a battle.

3. Characteristics and habitat

The Eastern screech owl comes in different colors, ranging from brown, grey to rufous and red. Depending on the color of their plumage, screech owls will choose the specific types of trees to stay for camouflage. The red morphs may seek shelter in particular pine trees and the bright leaves of changing deciduous trees. The gray morphs, on the other hand, blend in well with the bark of hardwood trees.

Males and females have the same appearance. They have golden eyes, ear tufts, and a light-colored beak. On the breast and the belly of the Eastern screech owl, there’re boldly streaked and speckled patterns. Among owls found in North America, screech owls are the smallest with a length from 6 to 10 inches. Their wingspan of 19 to 24 inches. Females are often larger than males, like other owls, although males are more efficient fliers and hunters.

Eastern Screech Owls with 2 morphs: red and grey

Eastern North America, from Mexico to Canada, is home to the Eastern screech owl. This bird is found in most wooded areas in its range, including deciduous forests, mature orchards, mixed woodlands, and parklands.

This owl has adapted to manufactured development better than any other owl in its region. They even live and nest in human-inhabited areas such as in neighborhoods, along the edge of a crowded highway, and in urban yards. However, you can barely see them as they’re nocturnal and usually avoid people.

4. Habits and lifestyle

The Eastern screech owl lives a solitary life, except for the mating season and the cold winters when it needs each other to stay warm. These owls are exclusively nocturnal, resting in cavities or near tree trunks throughout the day. From dusk to dawn, they start to hunt, especially in the first four hours. Females start to hunt later than males.

Because of their tiny size and camouflage habit, it’s very hard to spot Eastern screech owls. Instead of that, you will hear their hooting sounds. They usually call at night, especially throughout their breeding season in the spring.

Although being called the Eastern screech owl, the owl does not actually screech. It comes with 2 types: a whinny and a quiet low trill. It uses the whinny to protect its territory and used the low trill which lasts for 3-5 seconds to communicate with the partner or family members. The trill sound is also called the Bounce Song.

Fact: Eastern screech owls do not migrate
They stay in their native ranges all winter. During harsh weather, owls may leave their home range to find food.

5. Good sense of hearing

With a small size, the Eastern screech owl has its significant features to catch prey. Its sense of hearing is so good that it can identify creatures even under dense vegetation or snow. The bird’s ears are unevenly located on its head: one is higher up while the other is lower down on the opposite side or one is slightly front on the head, while the other is slightly back. Any placement is possible: forward, back, high, and low. This allows the owl to utilize the disparities in sound perception between each ear to track down prey.

Besides, their wide eyes and superior vision let them detect little movements at night.

6. Eastern screech owls’ diet

Eastern screech owls are carnivores and opportunistic hunters. Their diet is very diverse and they can eat almost everything compared to other North American owls. They can consume invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, and insects such as earthworms, moths, lizards, katydids, frogs, and crayfish. Mammal is also a part of their diet: squirrels, rabbits, rats, mice, and moles.

These screech-owls also eat many birds, from the small birds (thrushes, flycatchers, finches, swallows, and waxwings) to the bigger ones (shorebirds, grouse, woodpeckers, jays, and doves). In the winter, the owls may search for fish in man-made fishing holes or gaps in ice near bodies of water.

The Eastern screech owls are also called feathered wildcats due to their aggressiveness and dexterity in hunting.

So how do Eastern screech owls hunt?

The hunting areas of the owl species are primarily in open forests, open fields, or along the borders of marshes and open fields. They prefer to return to regions in their native range where it has previously hunted successfully.

Because the owls eat a diverse diet, they need different hunting strategies. Their main method is to attack prey from perches. They also hunt by searching the treetops in short flights or hovering to catch prey.

Eastern Screech Owl is hunting

To exactly spot the prey location, Eastern screech owls combine their excellent hearing and vision. When an owl detects prey, it sweeps quickly and grabs it with its talons. They also catch flying insects when flying.

Furthermore, the Eastern screech owls’ flight feathers are saw-toothed at the tips. This helps them reduce the noise made when they beat their wings, allowing them to approach prey stealthily. This feature, as well as the unique ear positioning, helps the owl species hunt in the dark.

If the caught prey is small, the owl will eat it all there and then. But if their prey is bigger, it will bring the prey to a perch in the bill and shred it into pieces. This bird may only eat a fraction of the prey and store the rest for later consumption.

Eastern screech owls fly pretty quickly with a constant wing beat (5 strokes per second). When flying, their wings are broad and their heads are tucked in, creating the owl a stubby appearance. They seldom glide, although while flying through dense forest, they may make irregular movements.

7. Mating ritual

To mate, Eastern screech owls do a complicated ritual. Males start to call from various branches until they get close enough. And then, he bounces and wiggles his head, his whole body, and even winks slowly at the female. If the female ignores him, he will bob and twirl more and more. If the female welcomes the male, she moves closer to him, and they preen and touch bills.

Eastern screech owls are monogamous, which means they will mate for life. They create deep long-term pair connections; but if one of them disappears, they will have a new partner. Sometimes males will have 2 mates. The second female may expel the first one out of the nest, lay her own eggs there, and incubate both clutches.

Their breeding season is usually in April (sometimes from mid-March to May) and couples often return to the same cavity annually.

According to the IUCN Red List, there are about 560,000 mature Eastern screech owls in the world. On the IUCN Red List, the species is not endangered; they are categorized as Least Concern (LC). However, their populations are declining.

8. Nesting

Before the nesting season, males protect a territory with multiple cavities. They spend each night in a separate cavity to monitor. Females will choose a nesting place from there and they prefer the one well-stocked with food or cavities where they have previously successfully nourished young.

Nest cavities are typically from 6.5 to 20 feet (about 2 to 6 meters) above the ground, but sometimes it can reach up to 50 feet (15 meters). Natural cavities, hollow stumps and limbs, and abandoned woodpecker holes are common places for the owls to place their nest. They will also comfortably nest in suitable nest boxes or behind loose panels on abandoned structures and barns. The Western screech owls even nest in saguaro cactus cavities, as well as abandoned magpie nests.

Fact: This owl species accepts human-made nest boxes.
You can put a box at 10-30 feet in the air, in a live tree. Because the owls do not make their own nests, 2-3 inches of wood shavings should be placed in the bottom of the boxes for nesting materials.

Eastern screech owls, like other owls, do not place any twigs or leaves at the bottom of the nest. They just lay their eggs at the cavity’s bottom. At an interval of 2 days, the females will lay their eggs and incubate them once the first egg is laid.

A batch of 2 to 6 eggs incubates for 26 to 34 days, with the young reaching the fledging phase in 31 days. Males occasionally do the egg incubation, but females undertake the majority of the work. The male supplies food, while the mother primarily focuses on the baby.

Two nestlings of Eastern Screech Owl on capacity

When the owlets are little, the mother rips the food apart for them. Nestling eastern screech owls compete aggressively for food and occasionally kill their youngest sibling. This behavior is called siblicide, it’s quite common in birds such as owls, or hawks. It is often the consequence of poor mating circumstances in a particular year.

The young will stay with their parents until they are 8-10 weeks old. When they are 1 year old, they reach reproductive maturity. Because incubation is normally initiated with the first egg, the eggs grow at different speeds and hatch at different times. The young departs the nest depending on the hatching time: the older leave first, followed by the younger on subsequent days. Only 30% to 50% of them can survive into the next year.

The eastern screech owls in the suburbs may fledge more young than the owls in the rural, perhaps due to the lack of predators. 

9. Defensive habits

With the height of 10 inches and the weight of 7 ounces, eastern screech owls are small. However, they are dangerous and fight like wildcats to protect their nest and territory.

When confronted with an attacker, the owl makes itself look larger by widening its golden eyes, standing upright, and fluffing out its feathers. If the attacker does not flee, it hooks its talons into the enemy’s face.

They rarely attack humans. If they do, they won’t cause significant harm because of their small size.

10. Lifespan of Eastern screech owls

In captivity, the longest lifespan of an eastern screech owl is 20+ years. However, their usual natural lifespan is approximately 3 to 7 years. The oldest one in the wild was about 14 years and 6 months old.

The death rate of nestlings and juveniles is very high, about 70%. They are mainly hit by cars while hunting at night or eaten by predators like snakes, minks, cats, raccoons, skunks, and other birds (Blue Jays).

Larger owls, such as barred owls, snowy owls, great grey owls, short-eared owls, as well as hawks and crows, prey on this owl species.


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