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Not Too Late For An Owl Box

Dear Bird Folks,

For the past few nights I have been hearing screech-owls calling in my yard. It’s too late in the year for owls to be breeding, right? So, why are they calling? I’ve been thinking about putting up an owl box, but they probably won’t use it until next year, right?

– Lisa, Plymouth, MA


Right and not right, Lisa,

You are correct, it is indeed too late in the year for Eastern Screech-Owls to be breeding. All of that family stuff ended for them weeks ago. However, it is not too late to put up an owl nest box. It’s never too late for that. Nest boxes (and natural tree cavities) are where these owls raise their families and even enjoy an afternoon nap, once the kids have gone. Why are the owls calling in September? Good question. Hopefully, I’ll come up with a good answer. You have faith in me, right? Screech-owls begin courting in late winter. Their courting rituals include bowing, bill clicks and, of course, nibbling each other’s feathers (been there, done that). After courting, the male will entice his mate to a nest site. He does this by leaving a bit of food (usually a hunk of mouse) near the cavity entrance. This food offering may sound a little gross, but it’s actually very important. It demonstrates the male’s ability to provide food for the eventual chicks. The last thing the female needs is a mate that can’t hunt, or worse, is a vegetarian.

Here’s an interesting fact: Owls don’t construct their own nests, which makes sense if you think about it. I’m mean, who wants to build something in the dark? (Although some of the stuff I’ve made looks like I did it with the lights off.) So, what do they use for a nest, you ask? Like a teenager crashing on a friend’s couch, the female will set up housekeeping on top of whatever material happens to be in the cavity when she moves in, and that’s all there is to it.

Typically, it takes thirty (-ish) days of incubation before the first chick hatches. The little owl chips its way out of the egg with the help of an “egg tooth.” What’s an egg tooth? The beak of a baby owl (as well as many other birds) isn’t strong enough to crack through the shell. So, evolution provides it with a small, sharp point on the tip of its beak. The egg tooth will remain for only a few days and then it will fortunately fall off, long before the parents have to pay for an orthodontist. Lucky them.

After a few weeks of being nest-bound, the kids will be strong enough to look out the “window” for the first time. There are some wonderful photos showing two and even three baby screech-owls with their heads all straining to get a glimpse of the outside world. They are like a family of puppies all trying to stick their heads out of a car window, only the owls don’t slime the window and their nest box doesn’t cost $50,000. A month after hatching the little owlets are finally able to take their first flights, which are usually only to nearby branches. For the next few weeks the adults will continue to care and provide for their young owls, but ultimately the babies will develop the skills needed to fend for themselves. Then it’s break time for the parents.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about a female hummingbird and how she will eventually cease worrying about her kids and turn her attention to herself, and her long migration back to the tropics. Well, migration isn’t an issue for screech-owls. The adults pretty much remain within the same territory throughout their entire lives. Because it’s “their” territory, they don’t want other owls, even their own offspring, moving in. As a result, the new owls will have to fly off in search of their own turf. This is the reason you are hearing screech-owls right now. They aren’t calling to attract a mate. Instead, they are trying to stake out their own piece of real estate. What do screech-owls sound like? Oddly, they typically don’t screech. Their two main calls are either a trill or a descending whinny, which sounds (to me) like a neighing horse…a very, very small horse.

Back in August I heard a screech-owl calling in our yard. I went outside to record the sounds but the minute I pressed “record” one of our seasonal neighbors began shooting off fireworks. Swell. So, back inside I went. A little while later I heard the owl again, and this time there were no fireworks to spoil the recording; there was something worse, a yapping dog. As soon as I opened the door, “Rabies,” one of my other seasonal neighbor’s annoying peek-a-doodle, or something like that, started barking. Oh, the joys of a Cape Cod summer.

Hearing calling screech-owls in the late summer is not only exciting, it also means you likely have one or two living nearby. This is why there’s never a bad time to put out a nest box. Owls not only need a box for breeding, but they often roost in boxes during the “off season.” Many times I’ve come home from work and found an owl looking out of one of my boxes. The bird will often sit motionless, enjoying the last few rays of sunshine, before heading out on its evening hunt. It’s so very cool.

Yes, Lisa, this is the perfect time to put up a screech-owl box. There are a lot of young owls looking to establish new territories right now. Sometimes they’ll use a box for nesting, sometimes just for roosting and sometimes for both. But either way, having an owl in your yard is a wonderful experience. It sure beats listening to a barking peek-a-doodle.