While sitting at my computer one evening in the twilight hours about a month ago, I heard an all too familiar “thump” sound in the direction of our front two picture windows. Since dusk was fast setting in for the evening, I was surprised because rarely we have bird strikes on the large windows at this time of the day. Reluctantly, I got up to go investigate what bird was attempting to carry out “hari-kari” at such a late hour. As I ascended the steps from our split-level home with the big window appearing to my right, I was startled to be looking eye to eye at a red-phased Eastern Screech Owl.
Less than a foot from the bird, I am not sure which one of us was most surprised. What I saw was a six-inch tall owl’s yellow eyes and round head for only a few split seconds before he flew away. His impact with the glass was not severe enough to injure him, and seeing my face frightened him. I could not really blame him for suddenly being spooked by coming face to face with another creature with his eyes also wide open. Over the years we have had a few bird and mammal window peepers; this one instantly won my heart and first place in my most memorable encounter with the wild creatures with which we share our place.
What immediately caught my attention was this little owl’s rufous plumage. Eastern Screech Owls have two plumage forms or morphs – red and gray. This was only the second red-morphed screech owl I have on my place; most have been gray morphs. I have read that a brood of screech owls can have both morphs. Both morphs have ear tufts with the gray’s being longer. The gray morph’s body shape appears to be lankier than the more-chunkier red morph. To confuse us birders, I have seen gray morphs with the more compact shape. As they are night prowlers, getting good looks at these birds is not an easy task.
Here in the Hill Country, the Eastern Screech Owl is the more common species of the screech owl family members; however, the Western Screech Owl, a bird more common in the western part of the state and country, does slip into the western part of the Edwards Plateau and western Kerr County. In Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico is a third species, the Whiskered Screech Owl. Since they are all nocturnal, the best way to identify them is by recognizing their voices,
The Eastern Screech Owl has two distinct calls – a quavering whistle that descends in pitch and a long single trill done in the same pitch, The Western Screech Owl’s call is a series of short whistles that accelerate in tempo and a short trill followed by a long trill in the same pitch. I like to think of the western’s call sounding that of a bouncing ball accelerating at the end. Many birders learn to imitate the eastern screech’s call to attract songbirds interesting in mobbing an intruding predator.
Eastern Screech Owls are cavity nesters, often using abandoned woodpecker holes. If you are industrious and you have potential screech owls in the neighborhood, you might consider building them an owl box. I recommend going on line and finding the specifications for screech owl nesting boxes. Before the owls find their potential new home, pesky squirrels may try to set up housekeeping. As with all cavity nesters, entry-hole size is the most critical dimension to use in constructing the nest box. You will have a choice of several designs.
I want to share with you a circumstance involving Eastern Screech Owls that I believe is the most intriguing behavior in our birding community. To reduce nest cavity parasites, screech owls learned to introduce earthworm-like blind snakes into their homes. The tiny snakes of only a few inches in length live in the box litter and consume the owl’s parasites. I have no idea how the owls figured this out and also why the baby owlets do not think the snakes are food. Studies have shown that nest boxes with blind snakes have higher numbers and healthier fledgling owls. Nature has some incredible scenarios related to survival in the natural world. Note the included nest box photo with an attentive screech owl people-watching.