Most people are familiar with and able to identify big owls such as a Barn, Barred or Great Horned or even a Snowy Owl if they’ve seen a Harry Potter movie, but how about the little owls that do not go “Hoo, Hoo, Hoo” at night. Very small owls, not much larger than adult Robins or European Starlings, live amongst us inconspicuously in parks and shady suburbs where many human residents are unaware that a tiny owl called a Screech is their neighbor. Although they are quite common in our area, there will be occasions when a Screech Owl, found injured or orphaned and being transported to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, is misidentified during the call-in as a baby Great Horned Owl. Most people just don’t expect owls to be that small and do not realize it is close to fully grown. When a Lieutenant from the Carteret County Sheriff’s Department recently saw a gray owlet on a country road close to a forest line, he had a pretty good idea it was a Screech but had no idea why it was sitting there, alone and not even close to a possible nest overhead. With so much wind on that Saturday night a theory formed that the baby had been blown out of a nest and because he couldn’t get back up the tree, beat feet in confusion and ended up where he ended up. Thankfully for that little owl, the kind deputy happened by to help him. Because it was very late and our shelter was unable to receive the baby owl, he spent the night in jail. Now, how many owls will be able to share that story with their offspring! Early Sunday morning, the tiny Screech was delivered to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter where he is being raised for his eventual return to the wild. The Police Officer shared the story during check-in at the shelter that although he felt sure the little owl didn’t mean to, his talons grabbed the deputy’s hand while being picked up Saturday night and unfortunately, drew blood. For that reason, the officer named him “Mr. Stabby.” Of course, any wildlife being handled by humans is experiencing highly abnormal contact. They will be scared and utilize whatever defenses they have. With owls, large or small, their talons can cut like a knife! At the shelter, we will wear leather gloves when the need arises to handle ‘Mr. Stabby.’ In the wild, a Screech Owl spends the day roosting in holes found in wooded environments or in dense cover and only becomes active at dusk. Despite the name, Screech Owls don’t really screech; their voice features a series of whinnies and soft trills but will intensify when sounding an alarm. The Eastern Screech Owl is a short, compact bird, with a large head and almost no neck. Its wings are rounded; its tail is short and square. Pointed ear tufts are prominent when raised, lending its head a distinctive silhouette. Eastern Screech Owls can be either mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown. Whatever the overall color, they are patterned with bands and spots that give the bird excellent camouflage against tree bark. Their eyes are most often bright yellow. Eastern Screech Owls have gray-green bills. They are about 7 to 10 inches tall and have a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. They hunt from perches, swoop down on prey and snatch a meal with well-developed raptorial claws. They usually carry their food to their nest before eating it. Their curved bill and talons are used as tools to tear their meals into pieces small enough for them to swallow. A Screech Owl’s prey includes insects they catch in midair such as beetles, moths, crickets; reptiles such as lizards, frogs, earthworms and small snakes; small mammals to include bats and mice, and other small birds. They are opportunistic hunters and will even grab a small fish occasionally. Screech Owls are known to tackle prey much large than itself, such as adult rabbits or ducks. Their excellent sense of hearing helps to locate prey in any habitat. Their digestive system requires the expulsion of a few pellets a day that contain fur, feathers, bones and teeth, which are prey body parts they cannot process. Eastern Screech Owls are nocturnal, active at night and far more often heard than seen. Most bird watchers know this species only from its trilling or whinnying song. Although this cavity-roosting owl prefers trees, it can be attracted to nest boxes if erected at least 10 to 30 feet above ground and occasionally it will nest behind loose boards on abandoned buildings or barns. During the day and if you’re extremely sharp-eyed, you may spot a Screech Owl at the entrance of its home in a tree cavity or a strategically placed and enticing nest box. However, trees define the Eastern Screech-Owl’s natural habitat. This owl is common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. Treeless expanses of mountains or plains is not suitable habitat for Screech Owls. Breeding season for Eastern Screech Owls is generally mid-April but can range from mid-March to mid-May. They have an elaborate courtship ritual. Males approach females, calling from different branches until they are close. The male then bobs his entire body, swivels his head, and even slowly winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, bobbing and swiveling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close, they touch bills and preen each other. The female will check out the nesting accommodations he is offering to ensure it’s suitable, and he will also try to impress her with food he has placed in the nesting cavity. Screech Owls mate for life but will accept a new partner if something happens to their previous mate. Grey and amber SO’s will mate together. Nests are almost always found in deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, maples, sycamores, willows, apples and occasionally in pines where three to five white eggs are laid on the natural floor of a cavity. No nesting material is added, and pairs of Screech Owls will often reuse nest sites through the years, to include former woodpecker (especially Pileated and Flicker) cavities. Incubation averages 26 days and these monogamous pairs share the care for their hatchlings. The male takes on the responsibility of providing food for his mate during incubation, and they both will hunt for food to feed their offspring. Although the young owls leave the nest at about four weeks after hatching, they are still fed by their parents and taught to hunt from dusk until dawn for quite some time. ‘Mr. Stabby,’ our little jailbird, is still very much a baby and his human foster parents at the shelter are tending to his needs. He is a hearty eater and growing in strength and size, but when appropriate and before his release, we must ensure his capability to hunt for food and recognize dangerous predators such as larger owls, weasels, raccoons, snakes, Crows and Blue Jays that might be in his path. The shelter boards a resident Screech Owl who we rely on to help us teach him everything he needs to know in the wild. Although it may be rare, one Screech Owl’s longevity on record states over twenty years, and we are intently focused on giving ‘Mr. Stabby’ the very best chance at living a long and healthy Screech Owl life!!
best always and Happy Baby Season,
author of “Save Them All”