Often heard but rarely seen, the Eastern Screech Owl
The other evening, after sunset and before it was totally dark, twilight, I was standing outside of the house and heard, far off in the distance, the unmistakable sound of one of our most common owls: the Eastern Screech Owl.
For the uninitiated, the eastern screech owl has a very eerie, spooky sound. I have heard it compared to a horse whinnying or to a woman crying. In my opinion, when I hear people talk about hearing “wildcats” crying in the woods, I wonder if what they were really hearing was the sound of a screech owl in full song.
The screech owl, technically the Eastern Screech Owl, or Megascops asio, is likely Ohio’s most common resident owl and probably my favorite. They can be found in small towns, parks and woodlots throughout the state. Like most owls, they are heard more than they are seen.
Its call is often called a “trill” or a “whinny.”
It is substantially smaller than most other owl species namely the Great-horned Owl or Barred Owl, but it is not the smallest owl in Ohio. That distinction goes to the tiny Saw-whet Owl.
If you do happen to see a screech owl - probably nestled close to the trunk of a tree - you’ll note its small size and prominent ear tufts or “horns,” and its large, yellow eyes. They are generally mottled gray or red in Ohio.
They might be fairly small and cute to look at, but they are birds of prey and use their razor-sharp talons and beak to catch and devour their meals - generally insects, small mammals like mice, snakes, lizards, frogs and birds. The screech owl itself is occasionally preyed upon by Ohio’s larger owls.
The Eastern Screech Owl breeds in February and March and the female lays a clutch of 3-8 eggs that takes from 26-34 days to incubate, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. The young fledge about four weeks after hatching, and are independent in about 8-to-10 weeks.
The owls nest in a natural cavity or in man-made boxes. They are reported to be aggressive near the nest, even swooping down and striking people on the head if they venture too close to the nest.
Landowners can invite the Eastern Screech Owl by installing nest boxes in the appropriate habitat.
The preferred habitat for screech owl boxes is near the edges of deciduous forests near fields and wetland. Boxes should be placed at least 10 feet high, and can be placed on a metal pole with a predator guard to keep squirrels out.
Plans can easily be found online, but the general dimensions are 8-by-8 inches and 12-15 inches high with a 3-inch entry hole.
I feel it is safe to say that over the years there have been more than a few faint-hearted, young backyard adventurers sent running scared back to the house by a “ghost” or “mountain lion” after a screech owl has opened up nearby.
Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. His column usually appears every other weekend. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or firstname.lastname@example.org