The eastern screech owl, also known as the eastern screech-owl or the Megascops asio, is a small owl native to the eastern United States. With its long legs and rounded ears, it resembles other scops owls that live in wooded habitats, but it’s much more lively and active at night than they are during the day, perching close to the tops of trees rather than keeping to the shadows at their base.
Megascops asio is one of the smallest owls in North America and can be found living in wooded areas with mixed forest and fields throughout its range, which spans the eastern and central United States, as well as southeastern Canada. The species was first described by naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale in 1818 and has no recognized subspecies to date.
The eastern screech owl is a small, robin-sized, brownish-gray nightbird that is often seen perched on branches at night with its eyes open wide to catch prey. Eastern screeches are often confused with barn owls and other owls that also do not have ear tufts.
They can be found anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains in North America and south of the Equator in South America. Eastern screech owls hunt mainly by listening to their prey’s movements since they cannot see well because of their nocturnal nature. In some cultures, this species is associated with misfortune and death.
The scientific name of the Eastern screech owl is Megascops asio.
Eastern screech owl habitat
The eastern screech owl is found throughout the southeastern region of the United States, in the Bahamas, and south to central Mexico. They prefer wooded areas with tall trees for roosting and nesting.
Eastern screech owl size and weight
The eastern screech owl is native to eastern North America and is one of the smallest in the owl family, Strigidae. They weigh between 5 and 6 ounces (166 to 194 g), making them roughly the size of a human hand. Their length is between 16 and 25 cm (6.6 to 9.8 inches), and they have a wingspan of around 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 inches).
Eastern screech owl feathers and plumage
While the eastern screech owl is a small bird, its plumage can be said to be beautiful. Brownish-gray feathers cover most of the eastern screech owl, but there are speckles of black and white, giving it a light appearance. The tail is dark brown and barred with white stripes.
The wingtips are barred with browns, blacks, and whites. Feathers that create an ornamental or eye-catching effect are those around the crown area and on the chest feathers.
Eastern screech owls also have ear tufts which give them a more distinguished look. With their long tails and upright posture, eastern screech owls appear larger than they actually are. The eyes of the eastern screech owl are yellowish-brown and their beaks are yellowish-white with dark tips.
Owls molt once a year and typically around August or September. The bird will form a ball with its body feathers and then lay on the ground, covering its head. During this time the bird may produce a distinctive odor while it sits still, letting the oils in the new feathers reach maximum strength.
At this point, it will lose all of its old feathers and start to grow new ones in its place. Molting can take from one to three weeks depending on the species and size of the bird.
After molting is complete, the bird will have a brand-new set of feathers that are shiny and colorful. It may also appear much thinner because many of its fat reserves were used up during molting.
Eastern Screech-Owls do not build nests. She lays her eggs on whatever debris she finds at the bottom of her nesting cavity, whether it is wood chips, twigs, or feathers and droppings from a previous nest. As she settles in, she makes a body-shaped depression where her eggs lie.
Diet and foraging
The diet of an eastern screech owl includes insects such as ants, beetles, moths, and earthworms; small mammals such as voles and chipmunks; and birds such as wrens, sparrows, and smaller owls. Eastern screech owls will also eat other larger animals if they are not too large for the owl to carry in its talons.
Eastern screech owl sounds and vocal behavior
Both sexes sing. Their most common sounds are shrill, descending whinnies and even-pitch trills called bounce songs or tremolos. Tremblos are used by couples and families to stay in touch and last 3 to 6 seconds.
A whinny lasts between 0.5 and 2 seconds and it is used to mark territories. These two songs can be played consecutively. Pairs of individuals can sing antiphonally at any time of day or night.
Eastern screech owl produces a wide variety of calls, such as a gentle, deep call as well as loud, sharp bark which indicates that there is danger. And it will make a cry if it has recently hatched chicks to defend.
For example, a hoot with three or four notes signifies annoyance, like when a bird is mobbed. Screech-owls close their bill mandibles together with a clacking sound when they’re aggravated. Threatened birds may also hiss in response to threats.
Breeding season occurs from late January to mid-March. In courtship, the male would exhibit his presence with his natural courtship behaviors of raising his wings, clicking his bill, and bowing.
They would bring food to a potential nest site as well and try to attract a female. As soon as they mated, they would call in a duet and preen each other’s feathers.
The female lays her eggs on whatever debris is at the bottom of the cavity, such as dry leaves, twigs, wood chips, or droppings and cast-off feathers.
Usually, they lay three to four eggs, but sometimes up to seven. They lay eggs in increments of one each day, with the incubation period at around 26 days. Around 4 weeks later, the eggs would hatch into eastern screech owl babies after the female had brooded them.
An eastern screech owl baby usually leaves its nest within eight to ten weeks of birth. They are incapable of flight at this point, so they bounce around between branches instead, and this stage is often called branching.
Screech owl babies are fed by both parents. However, during the period when the female is preoccupied with caring for the offspring, both mother and chicks are fed by the father. Still, it’s the female that does the heavy lifting: tearing up the prey and giving it to the baby screech owls.
In about 25 to 27 days, the screech owl baby birds will have matured and left the nest. Although, mothers will look after or care for their children for an additional 5 to 6 weeks.
Most Eastern screech owls will begin breeding from one year old and can have four or five clutches of eggs in a breeding season. In captivity, they are known to breed at one year old and lay four clutches of eggs a year.
Eastern screech owl lifespan
The Eastern screech owl typically lives for 5 to 10 years in the wild, but some have been known to live up to 15 years in captivity.
Movements and migration
The eastern screech owl is typically found living in the forests of Eastern North America. It migrates to these habitats every winter and spends spring and summer months in forested areas of the continent.
Screech owls are birds of prey that feed mainly on small mammals and reptiles. When feeding, they will cover a large area using their wide range of movement speed and techniques such as swooping, gliding, hovering, or even dropping from trees to catch their prey.
Diseases and threats
The eastern screech owl is threatened by the destruction of its habitat, and the use of pesticides that may affect the availability of insects and other small animals which comprise its diet.
Eastern screech owls are hunted by cats, house sparrows, hawks, and humans. One study in southern California estimated that 15-20% of adults were killed each year. Young screech owls can also be killed when they’re pushed out of their nest tree while they’re still too young to fly well.
In accordance with the IUCN Red List, the Eastern screech owl has a total population size of 560,000 mature birds. IUCN classifies this species as Least Concern (LC) on its Red List, but its numbers kept declining every day.
Conservation and management
The eastern screech owl is a native North American species that face habitat loss and pollution. As a result, it is one of the most endangered animals in North America. This owl often relies on nest boxes for habitats and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service constructs hundreds of nest boxes each year to help owls thrive.
As well, there are few legal conservation management techniques to protect this owl because little has been done since protection laws were written in 1973. There is not much research available on best practices for conservation.
What researchers do know about these birds, however, is that they do not tolerate disturbance during nesting season or capture easily so researchers need permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study them.