Bird Watcher's General Store

Screech Owls - 04/11/03

Dear Bird Folks:

Last year I had a gray screech owl in a nest box in my yard. This year the bird is back, only this time it looks red. I've read that screech owls have a red and gray morph. Could this be last year's bird in a red morph?

-Yolanda, Dennis

Well Yolanda,

You get points for being the first person to ask a question using the word "morph". It shows that you have been reading your bird books. You are also the first "Yolanda" to ever write to us. You don't get points for that, I just thought you should know.

For the rest of you non-readers out there, morph refers to a color phase in birds. A color morph should not be confused with seasonal or breeding colors. A male goldfinch is not entering a new color morph when he molts into his bright yellow summer plumage. A color morph is permanent and is not related to age, sex, season, religion or voting record. Different colored birds of the same species are not common, but it does happen.

As for your screech owl, Yolanda, the red owl that you are seeing this year is not the gray owl that you had in your nest box last year. Screech owls come in two basic color phases, red and gray. There is a less common brown phase found mostly in Florida and an even rarer paisley phase, but those birds haven't been seen since the late sixties. A red colored owl will always be red and a gray owl will always be gray, unless it goes somewhere to have the gray touched up. The interesting thing about screech owls is that a pair can produce a family of all red or all gray or a mixture of some red and some gray owlets. And, being totally liberal in their thinking, red and gray owls seem to have no issues about interbreeding. However, their offspring will either be red or gray, not a weird third color.

Screech owls are a common nester here on Cape Cod. They like to nest in tree cavities, but will readily come to properly sized bird boxes. What's kind of neat about screech owls is that they will also use nest boxes to roost in during the non-breeding season. On a cold winter's day the owls can often be seen sitting in the entry hole sunning themselves. Many people report that roosting screech owls are rather tame in the off season, allowing close approach. Yet they will become fearless and aggressive in the breeding season if their nest is approached and will have no problem taking the wig right off your head.

Screech owls are fairly small, not much larger than a baked potato. They are the smallest owls in the east with ear tufts and that sometimes fools the lightheaded people into believing that they are seeing a baby Great Horned Owl.

Screech owls are late night owls and are more often heard than seen. They can be heard calling any time of year, but spring and fall is the most common. Their call is not really a screech but more of a descending whinny, that reminds me of a tiny horse. But I might be alone on that one.

Since they are little owls, their prey is also small. These guys eat mostly frogs, worms, beetles and small mammals like mice and shrews. Finding food can lead to problems for the owl. Hunting in the open makes them vulnerable to becoming dinner to larger owls. Also, screech owls will sometimes pick up worms off a wet road, putting them in danger of becoming a hood ornament on a passing Buick.

Congratulations on your owls Yolanda. Hopefully, they will build a nest. If they do raise a family, run out and fill your feeder full of fresh shrews. (I think Stop & Shop carries them.) Don't buy the frozen or the Tex-Mex shrews, the owls don't seem to like them as well.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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