Bird Watcher's General Store

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Screech Owls Call at Night

Dear Bird Folks,

Could you please identify the bird that is making this sound. It was calling last night, so I put my iPhone out the window and made this audio clip. What do you hear?

– Jeff, Brewster, MA


I hear a lot of things, Jeff,

After carefully listening to your audio clip, I hear four distinct sounds. One is your TV in the background. I believe you were watching a rerun of Seinfeld, perhaps the Festivus episode, which would be appropriate this time of year. I also hear a barking dog and judging from the annoying yips, I’m guessing it’s a Yorkshire terrier. I can also hear you constantly yelling, “Shut up, Bella.” I assume Bella is the name of your dog (either that or you are really rude to your wife). The other sound I hear is the haunting call of an Eastern Screech-Owl, which is very cool. It’s not that screech-owls are rare, but right now owls are super popular and many people will be jealous to learn that you have one living in your yard. However, owl lovers may have second thoughts after reading the rest of this column. Owls aren’t as cuddly as many people think.

Ever since Harry Potter hit the bookstores (or in my case, the theaters), owls have been a hot item. We sell owl mugs, owl T-shirts, owl hats, owl mittens and even owl nightgowns. And the bulk of these items are purchased by young girls who think the birds are adorable. And while I too have a huge appreciation for owls, I don’t see anything adorable about them. Real owls don’t deliver the mail or bring Harry a Nimbus 2000 (a flying broom). They are ferocious hunters and are capable of catching and eating just about anything that moves, including unattended yorkies. But before you start knitting Bella a new Kevlar sweater, you can rest assured that she has nothing to fear from an 8” screech-owl. A small owl hunts small prey, including mice and moles, and most people don’t mind that. But there is one food item that folks might not be happy to hear about. It seems screech-owls like to eat songbirds, including our beloved backyard birds. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming; I know I didn’t.

Until recently, the idea that screechers would eat songbirds hadn’t even crossed my mind. After all, owls hunt after dark when most songbirds are safely sleeping in their hidden roosts. I’ve told more than one owl lover, who was purchasing an owl nest box, that the nocturnal owl wouldn’t bother their yard birds. Then a few weeks ago a charming little screech-owl started using one of the boxes in my yard. I was thrilled…until I began reading more about their dining habits and thought, “uh-oh.” In the winter, 30% of a screech-owl’s diet is made up of songbirds and in the spring that number shoots up to nearly 70%. (And people call Blue Jays “the mean birds.”) What happened to my theory that songbirds were safe after dark? Funny thing about that. I wasn’t totally correct, but I wasn’t totally incorrect, either. Here’s how the sneaky owls find their dinner.

While it is true that songbirds are fairly safe when they are sleeping, the trouble begins when they wake up. A few weeks ago, I wrote that one of the best times for bird watchers to see birds is early in the morning. Apparently, screech-owls already knew about this. Researchers feel that the owls are able to find songbirds when they (the songbirds) first wake up and start to move and vocalize. Even in the predawn hours, when it is still dark out, the owls are able to locate their victims the moment they (the victims) make the slightest sound. This brings up the next question: If screech-owls are eating so many songbirds, should we stop trying to attract them (the owls) to our yards? Heck, no. The diet of an Eastern Screech-Owl is exceedingly varied. They eat everything from birds to bats to mice to squirrels to beetles to worms and even fish. (How about that?) It’s not up to us to decide which one these items owls should or should not eat. Plus, screech-owls are extremely widespread, so there is a good chance that one of these birds will be feeding in our neighborhood whether we put up a box or not. And if it makes you feel any better, keep in mind that screech-owls regularly fall prey to other larger owls. It really is a jungle out there.

Unlike most other owls, which stay hidden when the sun comes up, screech-owls have the charming habit of regularly looking out of the entrance to their roosting cavities. Each morning, just after I’ve finished doing my 500 sit-ups, I look out of my bedroom window and there is the little owl, with its head poking out of the box staring back at me. I don’t judge it for eating birds and it doesn’t judge me for exaggerating about doing 500 sit-ups.

I don’t know if you have bird feeders or not, Jeff, but either way I wouldn’t worry too much about your screech-owl eating your songbirds. Creatures have a way of working things out without us butting in. In fact, we don’t even know for sure if the owl has setup a territory in your area or was just passing through. Now that I think about it, maybe the bird only stopped by your yard to listen to Seinfeld and I can’t blame it that was the case. That Festivus episode is a good one.