Creature Feature: Screech Owl (Otus asio)

Eastern Screech Owl: Red Phase - Photo Tom Sheley
Eastern Screech Owl: Red Phase - Photo Tom Sheley

Eastern Screech Owl: Red Phase – Photo Tom Sheley

“We’re leaving during the day, but I can give you a few pre-dawn hours. I might know where some Screech Owls are lurking.” With those words, Dave Horn became a Christmas Bird Count hero to me, the Columbus CBC compiler. Not only was it an audacious offer – he was leaving to visit family on Count day, after all – but Screech Owls are notoriously tricky winter residents to find in Columbus. Dave delivered, however, and not just that one year. He became a student again, this time of Clintonville’s Screech Owls.

Screech Owls (Otus asio) are our smallest owls and have a totally unearned reputation for cuteness. Their large expressive eyes and ear tufts make them easy to anthropomorphize, but don’t be fooled. These are fearsome little predators, and are often the last thing some hapless rodent sees in its lifetime. They are night-ambush predators that wait for a small creature to move underneath their perch, then drop on it to disable it with their talons and beak. The victim is often still alive when they swallow it whole. That’s not exactly what comes to mind when I hear the word cute.

Eastern Screech Owl in Cavity - Photo Tom Sheley

Eastern Screech Owl in Cavity – Photo Tom Sheley

Screech Owls prefer forests, since tree cavities are their favored roost and nest sites, but will accept almost any site that has some trees, including orchards and city parks. Their nocturnal habits and excellent camouflage – they look just like lichen-splattered tree bark – hide them well from curious humans. Usually you need to know where they are ahead of time and then visit to hear their quavering call (or lure them out with a good imitation). Dave had learned of their territories in several Clintonville ravines.

Eastern Screech Owl: Gray Phase - Photo Tom Sheley

Eastern Screech Owl: Gray Phase – Photo Tom Sheley

Screech Owls come in several colors – pale gray, light brown, and rusty red – that probably have to do with color-matching the dominant trees in their areas. A Screech Owl will freeze in place when threatened, counting on its mottled color and irregular body profile to make it look like a piece of the tree on which it is sitting. If the color is off, however, it can give the game away to some animals like us. One time, while leading a trip along the Westerville Alum Creek bike path, I espied a small blob of rust up in a gray-barked Box Elder tree. It turned out to be a red-phase Screech Owl resting in a cavity, and led to the discovery of several additional gray-phase birds roosting there and in a nearby truss bridge.

Screech Owls don’t really migrate. If you find them in an area, they’re likely nearby all year. They’re most territorial in late winter and early spring, a pattern held by many other owls, but they usually delay nesting until deep into spring. A nest usually has 1-3 fuzzy little owlets – yes, they’re just as cute as the parents – and the parents both must hunt to feed the clutch, so it’s often difficult to find nesting Screech Owls (they’re just too busy to call, kind of like adult human offspring). But when the owlets leave the cavity, there’s often a week when the scolding of small birds will lead you to the owl family clustered in some branches.

Where can you easily find Screech Owls? There are no ‘easily found’ Screech Owls in central Ohio, at least not since the colony along the Alum Creek bike path went AWOL a few years ago. Pretty much every Metro Park has a few and going on their owl prowls starting in March will give you a fairly good chance. I’ve also heard them in a lot of the forested ravines and riparian areas around town, but not often enough to say which is the best. Almost anywhere with sycamores and oaks, the trees most likely to offer nest cavities, offers a decent chance. Dave diplomatically kept directions to his owls vague, probably fearing that excessive visitors might make the owls skittish. He was thinking of the birds, again.

Eastern Screech Owl: Gray phase showing cryptic coloration against tree bark - Photo Tim Daneil

Eastern Screech Owl: Note how the gray phase coloring gives cryptic coloration against tree bark (Photo Tim Daniel)