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Screech Owl Habits

Dear Bird Folks,

For the past few years I have had a pair of screech owls nesting in a box in my yard. They are active around the nest box and then nothing. Days go by and I don’t see any signs of them. My thought is that both parents are inside the box taking turns incubating the eggs. Do you agree?

– Ginny, Mill Run, PA


Mill Run, Ginny?

I haven’t been to many towns in Pennsylvania, except for the one where they make the chocolate, so I’ve never been to Mill Run. But isn’t that where that crazy Frank Lloyd Wright award-winning house, Fallingwater, is? That’s the house with the stream running through the living room, right? Have you been there? I have to admit that it’s a pretty cool looking place but, with no offense to Mr. FLW, beavers have been living with water running through their homes for years and they haven’t won any awards. Obviously Frank had a better press agent than the beavers, and he probably smelled better too.

There was a time when I felt a bit guilty selling a screech owl boxes. I thought people would have a better chance of the Pope volunteering to clean their garages than they would of getting nesting owls. But lately I’ve been receiving lots of calls from people who are getting nesting owls. Wow! You mean these boxes really work? Actually, I knew the boxes were fine and that the owls loved them, but when I put up my own box the gray squirrels moved right in and I was too lazy (or nice) to kick them out. So I automatically assumed everyone else would be lazy (or nice) too. Evidently, people are more ambitious than I thought. Good. No more guilt for me, at least about this owl thing.

When we think of birds living in birdhouses, most of think of wrens, chickadees and bluebirds. The thought of having a nighttime avian predator living in one of our birdhouses is a bit strange, but sometimes we have to think inside the box to think outside the box. I know that’s a weird sentence, even for me, but it’s true. There are more kinds of birdhouses out there than just bluebird and wren houses, and screech owl boxes are one of them.

Eastern Screech-owls are odd birds. They try to mimic the sinister and threatening appearance that might remind us of a ferocious Great Horned Owl, but their tiny size, all of 8″ tall, makes them look more like feathery sock puppets. Their diet consists of mice, shrews and large insects. So, unlike Great Horned Owls, screech owls pose no threat to your pets, unless your pet happens to be a June bug. Then it would be wise to keep your pet on a leash.

Screech owls are found in a variety of habitats, ranging from deep woods to suburban parks and neighborhoods. I have never been lucky enough to have a pair nest in my yard, but recently I have been talking to a number of people, including you, Ginny, who have. According to the word on the street the best way to attract them to a nest box is to mount the box high up in a tree. Owls like to be at least ten feet up, and preferably higher. The tree should have a thick stocky-trunk and not be some anorexic super model tree. The birds would rather not have their home exposed, so cover and shade are also important factors to consider when choosing a location.

The additional cover is important to the male, for he needs a protected place in which to roost while the female sits on the eggs. Hey, Ginny, I think I just answered your question. Did you notice? Yes, the male really does think (and sleep) outside the box, because it is the female that stays inside. She incubates the eggs while he sleeps nearby. But at night he is off hunting, bringing her fresh mice or unleashed June bugs. That would explain why you don’t see much activity. The birds are sleeping and/or incubating during the day, with all the action taking place well after dark.

Screech owl boxes also have a bonus. Unlike many smaller birdhouses, which usually sit unused after the breeding season is over, a screech owl will often use a box throughout the year. On a cold winter’s day you may see a lone owl looking out of the “window” of the box, enjoying the last few sun rays of the day. It’s worth putting up the box just for that one image.

I’m jealous of you and your owl family, Ginny. However, I’m not so jealous that I’m ready to kick the squirrel out of my box. The squirrels and I have an unwritten agreement. I let them live in my owl box and they force the rest of the world to buy expensive squirrel baffles. So far, the agreement has worked out swell for both of us.