Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Screech Owl

We received a phone call from our neighbor Rey and all he said was for me to come to his backyard immediately and to bring my camera. When we got there we found perched on a hose rack was a beautiful screech owl with “red phase” plummage. We were all baffled how it seemed fearless as it was only about three foot off of the ground and right in front of us. It was totally aware of our presence as it would follow me as I walked in front of it. Its closeness and obvious fearlessness tempted me to reach out and touch it, but I decided not to because I wanted it to hang around as long as possible, so we could all take in the beauty of this bird.

These owls, smallest of the “horned" owls, are mostly nocturnal and come in two color phases- red and gray (the most common) and either color can be male or female. Both red and gray phase can pair up having young of both colors. These cryptic colors blend in well with their surroundings, meaning you usually hear them before you see them. Screech owls breed late winter into early spring and have clutches averaging 3-5 eggs that take approximately 26 days to hatch. Young are seen to by both male and female parent and fledge around 31 days. They do not construct their own nests, but will utilize naturally occurring or abandoned woodpecker cavities, unused mailboxes, holes in utility poles. Conner reported a screech owl that had displaced a pair of pileated woodpeckers from their recently excavated cavity.

Seeing that natural tree cavities are scarce in suburban areas they will take advantage of bird boxes and have also made use of boxes intended for wood ducks. They will not only use all of these to nest in, but will also use them to roost after nesting season has passed.

Screech owls are opportunistic predators meaning they will eat whatever food is available. And other birds are high on the menu. Birds including warblers, sparrows, blue jays, downy woodpeckers, the young of chickens, catbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, buntings, thrashers, flickers, robins, inca doves, blue jays, common grackles, northern mockingbirds, etc., etc., etc. Speaking of sparrows, there was an article in an issue of the Journal of Field Ornithology that talked of a screech owl that was going after sparrows (white-throated and song) that had been mist netted for banding. Even a roughed-grouse, a bird much larger than this owl was reported as prey. My neighbor also discovered a headless warbler, that was later identified by an acquaintance of mine as an orange-crowned warbler , nearby on the steps of his deck about four feet from where the owl was perched. It is my belief that the decapitated warbler was captured by the owl, because they've been known to de-head prey.

Insects are also on the menu including beetles (May and June), fireflies, moths, centipedes, roaches, most anything that comes crawling along. They not only catch them on the wing “flycatcher” style with beak or claw, but will also pursue them hopping on the ground. Fish are not a common food but I did find a couple instances in the literature- one involving a goldfish. The observer watched the owl descend from a hanging pot to a semi-circular fish pond that was in his backyard containing goldfish. He watched as is fluttered on the water’s surface and then fly away with the fish in its talons. Another instance occurred back in 1889 where the recorder found a dead screech owl inside a fish trap that had been set in a spring. He concluded that the owl had dropped onto the water after a fish and ended up somehow in the trap where it drowned. And a final article spoke of fish remains found in the gut of a dead screech owl. Other noted prey: Crayfish, earthworms, mice, bats, rats, voles, snakes, frogs, newts, spiders, scorpions, squirrels, shrews, salamanders. Caching is done by these owls and is believed to be executed when food supply is sporadic or unpredictable. Sometimes this is done during breeding season, but not exclusively. This is also seen in shrikes , snowy owls, prairie falcons, kestrels, to name a few. Screech owls will usually cache their prey either in the nest, along with nestlings, or somewhere nearby (i.e. on rafters). Cope and Barber in 1978 reported that numerous one-day old dead chicks were found cached on a shelf inside an enclosure by a screech owl where chickens were being housed, some decapitated. Was the decapitated warbler headed for storage?

My wife not only found a fresh owl pellet on the ground (note the tooth protruding) but also noticed another owl (gray phase) right above us on a branch.

We began to look around and found several other older pellets that contained the bones of a rodent.

There was also whitewash all over the roof of a doghouse that was under the tree. After about twenty minutes of giving us its permission to ogle over it, it flew up and landed on a branch of a nearby hackberry tree.

My neighbor is of Mexican heritage and said that his grandmother once told him that owls were harbingers of bad luck and death. Though I'm not superstitious I'll go with the superstition of my wife's cajun heritage who believed that owls were old people who have left this world and should be respected.

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