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Wednesday, 31 August 2011 13:26

Screech owls don’t really screech

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The Eastern Screech Owl has the broadest ecological niche of any owl in its range. It occurs east of the Rocky Mountains, where it is a permanent resident of both rural and urban habitats from south of the Canadian boreal forest to near the Tropic of Cancer in Mexico. This species nests in tree cavities in wooded environments below about 1,500 meters, regardless of habitat, occupying lowland forests to mountainside woodlands, both deciduous and evergreen ... It is often the most common or only avian predator in wooded suburban and urban habitats.

— Birds of America Online (subscription site sponsored by the Ornithology Lab at Cornell and the American Ornithologists’ Union)

These little owls, which are seven to 10 inches in length, become particularly active here in the Smokies region from mid-August through October. My wife and I have been hearing them in recent weeks during the daylight hours, as well as throughout the night.

Eastern screech owls are not aptly named. Their primary call is actually a quavering descending trill reminiscent of a horse’s whinny, not a screech. Its vocal repertoire also includes various barks, hoots, rasps, and chuckles.

The Cherokees knew this bird as “wahuhi,” an onomatopoetic term that captures the essence of its eerie sound. All owls, being nocturnal predators, were ascribed mysterious supernatural powers by the Cherokees, who considered them to be evil portents, often an embodiment of a human ghost or one of the various disguises assumed by witches.

No other North American owl has such distinctive plumage differences. The screech owl has two color-morphs, rufous and gray. Individual owls can’t change colors but localized populations will tend to be one or the other. In this area the reddish phase outnumbers the gray by approximately four to one. That ratio is reversed in the piedmont and coastal plain. Ornithologists suppose these color phases help the birds blend in more effectively in their respective forest environments. Five subspecies are recognized by ornithologists according to body size and vocalizations.   

Learn to imitate their tremulous call and they’ll often answer you right back. I have lured them to within 15 yards or so of our porch, probably to see who the fool was making such a racket. It’s not difficult to locate and observe them with a flashlight.

A screech owl will capture and devour most anything that comes along: earthworms, young rabbits, moles, rats, mice, songbirds, and so on. A full-sized domestic chicken is the largest food item currently on record. Small items are eaten when caught, while larger ones are cached away (usually in tree cavaties) for subsequent consumption.   

Screech owls often nest in tree cavities. You can also purchase or construct boxes that they will readily move into so that you can observe them on a regular basis. A friend of mine who lives in suburban Atlanta, Ga., purchased a screech owl box and placed it in a tree about 30 yards from his back porch.

He was able to observe the box quite closely through a spotting scope. To his surprise and pleasure, within a few days a screech owl had moved into the box.

If you do locate a screech owl nest in the wild or establish one, be careful about approaching too closely.  They become “feathered wildcats” when defending these sites. Aroused adults make raking strikes with their talons at intruders who come near nestlings and fledglings. Domestic cats, dogs, squirrels, snakes, and any other animals, including humans, are subject to attack.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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