The rites of courtship usually kick off in March. One day, I look up from my computer and there he or she is, sitting at the entrance of the owl box that hangs 12 feet up in a loblolly pine tree.
For the next few weeks, I’ll see screech at all hours of the day. Then at last light, he or she takes off, in search of a meal of songbirds, insects, rodents and other yummy critters. However, by late March or early April, I won’t see so much as a feather. The first year this happened, I was convinced we had done something to offend screech’s sensibilities. However, several weeks later we were treated to our first look at young screech owls. Fluffy and gray, they bobbled in front of the nest box entrance like sock puppets on tequila. Their jerky, uncertain maiden flight occurred about a week later, with both parents offering encouragement from nearby trees.
The same thing has happened for the last five or six years, culminating with the young making their grand entrance Mother’s Day weekend (early May). This year, however, the adult owls threw me a ringer. In addition to seeing an owl in the usual nest box, I now also see another, smaller owl in a bluebird box that features a gaping entrance gnawed by gangs of demonic squirrels. Most evenings this March, they have each sat in their respective nest boxes, not paying one another the slightest bit of attention. And like a Hollywood gossip reporter, I just had to know what was going on. Are they friends, enemies or Frenemies? Are they courting or completely clueless of each other’s existence?
So, I called Laura Erickson, a science editor from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and author of “The Bird Watching Answer Book.” It turns out, Laura is not only an expert by training, she is licensed to possess a screech owl for educational purposes (though it’s not recommended the average birder undertake this responsibility). Her experience with a screech owl named Archimedes made her the ideal person for me to cross examine.
Screech owls, which are only about 6 ½ to 10 inches in length, come in two color phases: gray and red (mine are a handsome cinnamon color). Male birds are smaller, and Laura suggested the smaller bird I’m seeing in the bird box renovated by squirrels is a male, while the female is occupying the larger owl box. The male and female typically don’t roost together except during winter they occasionally will share a nest box or cavity.
Screech owls mate for life, though Laura said about six percent of pairs divorce and find another mate even if the original one hasn’t died. If one owl does breathe its last, the other often takes a new mate. Laura said screech owls differ from hawks in that they are more “touchy feely” and will preen each other’s faces. Singing is another part of the male’s romantic repertoire. He trills to court the female, and whinnies to defend his territory.
Then the work begins. The female incubates the eggs and broods the young. She sits on her two to six eggs for about a month. After they hatch, the male is in charge of hunting. For the next month, he hands his catch over to the female who tears it up and feeds the young. Males will hunt even during the daytime to keep nestlings fat and happy. Screech owls are respectable hunters, catching about 50 percent of the mice and birds they go after and 83 percent of the insects they pursue.
After the young fledge, the parents have another 8 to 10 weeks of hard labor, teaching the little owls how and what to hunt and making sure they recognize danger and then what to do about it.
Laura said screech owls are common backyard nesters and will use the same nest site year after year. Because they are shy and quiet, they often go unnoticed by their human neighbors (unless you hear their spooky, quavery calls), though I can tell you from experience the local songbirds are abundantly aware of this pint-sized owl’s presence. During the day, screech will sit at the entrance of her nest box, catching some rays (and vitamin D) until a mob of titmice or bluebirds start flapping around. Screech, whose eyes appear closed, is actually monitoring potential threats and pops inside the box when the avian bullies get too close. The songbirds have a right to be scared, though, as I have watched screech pick off a female cardinal from the feeder.
Many thanks to Laura for helping me lift the shroud of mystery surrounding the life of eastern screech-owls.
You can learn more about the birds that interest you at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Web site. Their “All About Birds” is one of my favorite places to loiter on the internet. It contains great photos, maps, life history descriptions and even audio files of bird songs.
Interested in becoming a citizen scientist by monitoring bird nests? You can contribute to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s data base of nest records through Project NestWatch.
Through eBird, you can also support a real-time, online checklist program by reporting bird sightings so scientists can spot trends in distribution and abundance.