Birds – Screech Owl

(Megascops asio)

Called also: MOTTLED OWL; RED OWL; LITTLE HORNED OWL

Length-8.50 to 9.50 inches.

Male and Female—Brownish red phase: Upper parts rusty red, finely streaked with blackish brown and mottled with light brown; under parts whitish or buff, the feathers centrally streaked with black and with irregular rusty bars. Eyes yellow; legs and feet covered with short feathers; prominent ear tufts. Gray phase: Upper parts ashen gray streaked with black and finely mottled with yellow; under parts white, finely streaked and barred irregularly with black, more or less bordered with rusty. Immature birds have entire plumage regularly barred with rusty, gray, and white. Range—Eastern North America.

Season—Permanent resident.

Why this little owl should wear such freaky plumage, rusty red one time, mottled gray and black another, without reference to age, sex, or season, is one of the bird mysteries awaiting solution. Frequently birds of the same brood will be wearing different feathers. In the transition from one phase to another, many variations of color and markings appear; but however clothed, we may certainly know the little screech owl by its prominent ear tufts or horns, taken in connection with its small size. Like the little saw-whet owl, which, however, wears no horns, people who live in cities are most familiar with it on women’s hats, worn entire or cut up in sections.

A weird, melancholy, whistled tremulo from under our very windows startles us, as the uncanny voices of all owls do, however familiar we may be with the little screecher. Are any superstitions more absurd than those associated with these harmless birds? Because it makes its home so near ours, often in some crevice of them, in fact, in the hollow of a tree in the orchard, or around the barn lofts, this is probably the most familiar owl to the majority of Canadians and Americans. It keeps closely concealed by day, often in a dense evergreen or in its favorite hollow; and except for the persecutions of the blue jay, that takes a mischievous delight in routing it from its nap and driving it abroad for all the saucy birds in the orchard to pursue and peck at, we should never know of its presence. In the early spring especially it lifts up its voice—too doleful a love song to be effective, one would think ; yet the screecher’s mate apparently considers it entrancing, since she remains mated for life. In the southern and central portions of its range, nesting begins in March; in the New England and northern parts some time between the middle of April and the first of May. A natural cavity in a hollow tree, or an abandoned woodpecker’s hole are favorite nooks, and boxes nailed up under the dark eaves of outbuildings on the farm or in dense evergreen trees where light cannot strike the owl’s sensitive eyes, have been promptly appropriated in many instances.

It is generally known that all owls go through some strange performances to woo their mates, but few have been so fortunate as Mr. Lynds Jones, who watched a pair of screech owls mating. ” The female was perched in a dark, leafy tree,” he says, ” apparently oblivious of the presence of her mate, who made frantic efforts, through a series of bowings, wing-railings, and snappings, to attract her attention. Those antics were continued for some time, varied by hops from branch to branch near her, accompanied by that forlorn, almost despairing wink peculiar to this bird. Once or twice I thought I detected sounds of inward groanings, as he, beside himself with his unsuccessful approaches, sat in utter dejection. At last his mistress lowered her haughty head.”

When hunting, the owl moves like a shadow, so silently does it pass in the darkness. Insects, cut worms, and mice are what it is ever seeking; but sharp hunger in winter has sometimes led it into butchery of little birds. Of two hundred and fifty-five stomachs of screech owls examined by Dr. Fisher for the Department of Agriculture, one hundred contained insects; ninety-one, mice; thirty-eight, birds; eleven, other mammals than mice; nine, crawfish; seven, miscellaneous food; five, spiders; four, batrachians; two, lizards; two, scorpions; two, earth worms; one, poultry; one, fish; and forty-three were empty. Why in the name of all that is economic and humane, should this valuable ally of the farmer be so persistently shot ?