VirginiaLynne is an educator and mom of 5. Her Science Fair articles come from projects which competed successfully (local, state, national)
What Are Eastern Screech Owls Like?
Screech Owls are a very small type of owl, only 8-10 inches in height. They are generally a mottled grey color, which helps them to blend in with the trees that they perch in during the day. However, they can range in color from grey to red. There are two varieties of Screech Owls in the United States: Eastern and Western.
Eastern Screech Owls live in Central Texas, where I live. Our family was invited by the top expert on this species to watch a baby owl banding. Banding the owls is how scientists keep track of them and learn about their movements and habits.
What Do They Eat?
One of the reasons Eastern Screech Owls are successful is that they are not picky eaters. They are remarkable predators who eat a variety of insects, small mammals, reptiles, and even small birds. In fact, one of the birds they frequently eat is the cardinal, which is still up and active when they start hunting at twilight, and then is also one of the first birds awake and moving around when the owls are returning at dawn from their nightly hunt. They can even pick birds off of their roosting spot on a branch. Since our family loves the cardinals that regularly nest in our yard, that made my children sad.
Luckily, the research by the scientist who invited us to the owl banding, Dr. Fred Gehlbach, shows that even if the Eastern Screech Owls do eat other birds, they don't have a negative impact on species in their range, which is generally 10 acres during the summer and 20 acres during the winter season.
Eastern Screech Owl Call
Successful Adaptation to Human Habitats
What surprised us is learning that these owls are becoming more and more common because they find suburban neighborhoods like ours an excellent environment. Over the 40 plus years Dr. Gehlbach studied them (the longest-running study of any bird), he has watched their habitat in Central Texas move from being rural to suburban. During that time, his banding and tracking of the birds has shown that they have done very well, adapting nicely to box nests put up by humans when the naturally hollowed out trees were cut down. Dr. Gehlbach has found that currently, the owls in suburban areas do better than those in the wild in Central Texas because they have more food, more water, and fewer enemies to worry about.
Screech Owls and Blind Snakes: An Unusual Relationship
For most bird boxes, the policy is to clean them out yearly. However, the screech owls have their own system to clean out their boxes. According to research done by Dr. Gehlbach, and reported in Audubon magazine in 2002 by Kenn Kaufmann, screech owls have an interesting relationship with blind snakes. They take these snakes, which look like large earthworms, into their nests. Dr. Gehlbach speculates that they probably bring them as food for their babies, but these snakes have skin that is rather slimy and slippery. It seems that the snakes often slip away from the owl babies and burrow into the mass of rotting debris in the nest.
While at the bottom of the nest, the snakes eat the fly and ant larva which are feeding on the leftover baby owl food. For example, the snakes might eat bits of mice bones and beetles. Amazingly, the nests where the blind snakes clean out the rotting material have healthier owlets and more of them fledge out of the nest successfully. Dr. Gehlbach calls this relationship "mutualism." Eventually, when the owlets leave the nest, the snake gets out and goes back to its normal underground life.
We see these snakes regularly in our backyard. They are about the size of a pencil in thickness and length. They vary in color from brown to silver, like the one pictured above. They mostly live in the soil and only come out to feed or when it rains and they are flooded out. Even though our whole family had seen these snakes, we had never heard of this symbiotic relationship, which we found fascinating!
Baby Owlet Banding
My husband, my three girls, and I were invited by Dr. Gehlbach, an Emeritus Professor of the Biology Department at Baylor University, and the world authority on screech owls, to participate in a baby screech owl banding. We were very excited to have this opportunity to see the baby owlets up close.
Dr. Gehlbach has researched the owls in the Central Texas area for many years and has helped homeowners put up Screech Owl boxes for the owls to nest in. Every spring, he opens the boxes and takes out the baby owls to put an identifying band on their leg so that they can be tracked and their locations and movements pinpointed for study.
We arrived at four when the light was still up and the owls would still be asleep. My husband and daughters attended a screech owl banding the previous year, but this was my first opportunity. I was very surprised to have them point out the father owl sleeping on a branch a few feet away from the babies. It was late afternoon and, apparently, the father sleeps there all day. He was hidden in the branches and I would not have seen him if they had not pointed him out.
How Are Owls Banded?
As the video shows, Dr. Gehlbach held the baby screech owls one by one as he attached a numbered tag to each one's leg with a clamp. The tags are documented through the Department of Wildlife and will help Dr. Gehlbach and others track and research the birds throughout their lives. Although the metal bands are put on securely, they are loose enough to not bind the bird's legs as they grow.
Our Owl Banding Experience
There were four baby owls in the box, and they were bigger than I had expected. The homeowners said they had been peeking out of the box, and Dr. Gehlbach said that was a sign they were ready to leave the nest soon. They were wide awake as he pulled them up and put them gently in a paper sack. I expected them to squawk, but they actually made clicking noises most of the time, or else were silent.
Unfortunately, the homeowners said they had found the mother owl dead. They were not sure what had killed her. However, the father owl had continued to feed the babies, even though we imagined that feeding four large birds and himself every night must be quite a challenge.
Although rarely noticed by humans because they are awake at night, screech owls are not afraid of living in areas where there are people. However, they have trouble finding nesting sites even in neighborhoods where there are plenty of Oak and other trees that they like. That is because screech owls normally nest in the hollows of dead trees which humans cut down.
Through his research, documented in his book that I found fascinating, Dr. Gehlbach developed the ideal screech owl nest, a box about 8 inches square and 10 inches deep. The box needs to be 12 to 20 feet from the ground for the owls to be comfortable with it. See the video for instructions. If you aren't handy, you can also buy a pre-made owl box from Amazon.
Do you have an owl box or owls in your neighborhood? I'd love to have you share your own owl experiences in the comments!
How to Build an Owl Box
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 24, 2020:
Hi Carole! Thanks for sharing your story of having them in your yard. What fun to have a family of 7. I don't now for sure about whether or how parents would encourage the young to leave, but I think it would probably happen as a natural process of trying to find food. As top predators, they would need to have a certain amount of territory in order to find enough to eat. Of course, they would also need to find a mate. I'm sure that those two needs would tend to make them leave the area after a while.
Carole Higley on August 24, 2020:
We put up a screech owl box two years ago and that fall had a male start roosting in it. In the spring he and his mate had 3 babies and they fledged and I never saw the babies after that. Then last fall I had another owl box and put it on the edge of the patio as decorative and at the last minute our female decided that was the box for her and payed 5 eggs! It was amazing to see the whole process from the bedroom window. The whole family of 7 has been in the back yard just over the view fence and frequent the water bowls we have out for wildlife. I have so many photos. Question tho.. do the parents encourage the young to leave the area, or do they do that on their own?
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 18, 2016:
Wow Phyllis--that is really interesting. It might be the mother and father owl. It was very sad that the owls that we banded only had a dad left. The mom had evidently gotten killed. So both parents tend to the young.
Phyllis Dunavent on May 18, 2016:
We have had screech owls for years roosting on our tangerine tree. This year we put up an owl nest box. Someone is in there, but we are not sure who or how many. This season I have seen 2 different owls there, one bigger and fatter and one smaller and skinnier. If you want to see pictures, let us know.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 31, 2015:
Myra--I'm sorry that your owl pair has left. My guess is that they might have chosen to nest elsewhere. If there are eggs, you might want to have the box cleaned out so that another pair will nest later. Sorry I am not able to help more.
MyraHoward on May 30, 2015:
I had a male & female for months here in Georgetown until it started to rain
night and day. Now they are gone.They left in May. I am new at this so I don't know what happened. I can't reach my owl house it to high. Should I get another one? I'm pretty sure their were eggs. I wouldn't think the female would leave the nest. Any ideas would help. Thanks
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 03, 2014:
Rick--I'm glad to hear you've got a Screech owl nearby. We hear both Screech Owls and Barred owls in our neighborhood and occasionally see one when we are walking at night.
Rick Steffey on September 02, 2014:
Have been hearing a Screech owl here lately at dusk.Could not identify it at first had to look it up,been here 10 years first time I heard one here.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on April 19, 2014:
Blaria--thanks so much for sharing your story! I've had encounters with baby birds too and often found that the parents were actually nearby. I bet this owl mom was trying to get the baby to fly. These babies are absolutely adorable--I am so glad to know that they have adapted so well to living in suburban neighborhoods.
Blaria on April 18, 2014:
Just found a baby screech owl outside my work yesterday morning sitting in a small pile of mulch. My co-workers and I watched for mama owl all day and didn't see her. At 5:00 pm upon closing the office, I thought that baby owl was probably abandoned. So I decided to put him in a box and take him to our local wildlife sanctuary in Palm Beach County. No sooner had I placed the baby owl in the box than I saw mama owl fly out from the drain pipe on our roof and start calling out to her baby. The baby immediately started to answer back. I took the baby out of the box and placed him back where he had been all day. I stepped away back into the office for about 15 minutes and when I returned, the baby was gone. I did see mama owl in the drain pipe again today, but no sign of baby owl. I have to say the baby owl was absolutely adorable !
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 30, 2012:
Hi Paul! Thanks for sharing your story. It would be great to have you post your pictures and your plans on a blog or HubPages. If you don't want to do this yourself but want to send them to me, I'd be happy to post those for you giving you credit. Just contact me through HubPages.
Paul Johnson on December 30, 2012:
Some years ago our neighbor put an owl home in a tree and an owl quickly moved in. I am a carpenter so I drew up plans for a owl home which I gave to another neighbor's kids and told them to bring it back over the Christmas break and we would build the home together. Which we did. A few day later I had a 4 year old on my door step jumping up and down saying "We have owl, we have owl." Sure enough there was an owl roosting in the home. I built one for our house and put it in a Cedar in our back yard. A few days later I looked out and there was an owl roosting in the home. Three owl homes within 200 yards of each other with owls. We all thought it was one owl moving between the three homes until one day there were owls in all three homes at the same time.
Since then I have built and sold a lot of owl homes in the northwest section of Austin. The vast majority have been occupied. Last year was the first year we have had a breeding pair. Last Mother's Day there were four chicks!!!
For two seasons we had the Red Morph version...
I do not know how to post images but have some great pictures of the owls that live in our back yard...
RTalloni on November 28, 2012:
Simply an amazing hub! I loved every bit of it and your video has given me a smile that's going to follow me throughout my day. :)
Right now I'm thinking two things: "Who knew?" and "We need a screech owl nesting box or two."
Seeing the children interact with the owls is treasure to watch--Bravo Professor Gehlbach--and seeing the wind blow the feathers of the young owl in that closeup was thoroughly delightful.
Thanks for an enjoyable and informative post! I expect this will be highlighted many times over by readers, including by me.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on November 28, 2012:
Lori--that is so much fun. It probably is a screech owl. They have done very well in Central Texas. If you are interested, you can build an owl house fairly easily or buy one. They won't be nesting now, but they will be looking for a nest in the spring and having an owl house can draw them to stay in your yard!
Lori W. on November 27, 2012:
Thank you so much for this site. My family lives in Georgetown, TX and we have recently discovered an owl that is perched in a tree right outside our kitchen window. It has been fascinating and just beautiful to watch-- sleeping all day, and i caught it taking off at dust for the first time today. Awesome! After watching this video and reading this, I think it might be a screech owl. Thank you so much for your information.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 22, 2012:
Thanks so much! This was such a great experience that I wanted to share it with other kids too.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 21, 2012:
I'm so glad your kids enjoyed it! Thanks for letting me know!
Jeremy Wade from Tennessee on May 21, 2012:
very cool informative hub. my kids really enjoyed the photos. voted up