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Eastern Screech Owl

The screech owl (Megascops asio) is a very common but rarely glimpsed bird. This bird is known by many other common names including little horned owl, scritch owl and shivering owl. Often mistaken for a baby because of its small size, the screech owl is the smallest owl with ear tufts in the eastern U.S. Their call, heard most often in spring and fall, is not a screech but a soft, mournful whinny, or a tremulous whistle that rises & then falls in scale. The long trill of rapid notes is a call between males and females.

The female is a little larger than the male, but otherwise they look alike. Unless you see one lay an egg it’s difficult to tell them apart by sight. Both genders can be red to mottled gray in color. The feathers of the gray owls look so much like tree bark that they can be very difficult to spot in a tree.

Screech owls are common in small woodlots, near wooded streams and even in towns. They are year round residents in woods throughout Virginia.

These birds are excellent hunters, well adapted for locating prey in the dark. Fringed flight feathers allow them to silently swoop down on unsuspecting animals. Screech owls eat a wide variety of prey including insects, rodents, shrews, moles, fish, frogs and even small snakes. They have even been known to catch and eat other birds that weigh almost as much as they do. Like other owls, screech owls eat the entire animal, swallowing it whole if possible, and later coughing up pellets that contain the indigestible portions.

Screech owls nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes. During the breeding season (February to July), the female lays 4-5 white eggs. The male usually feeds the female while she sits on her eggs for most of the 26-31 day incubation period. Both parents feed the young birds which fledge at 4-5 weeks old. Screech owls have one brood per year. Since they are hole-nesters, you can attract screech owls by building nesting boxes.

These well camouflaged birds roost during day in hollow trees and often sit at the entrance, huddled close to the tree trunk, with squinting eyes an  erect tufts to mimic a dead branch with twigs.

Screech owls have few enemies but they do become prey for larger owls. Northern flickers have been known to build nests over screech owl eggs and raccoons eat the eggs. Traffic collisions, traps meant for other animals, and electrocution when they come into contact with power lines also take a toll.

In the Virginia Living Museum’s World of Darkness Gallery you can enjoy a close-up view of these small, elusive raptors.

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