Screech owls are among the smallest types of owl, living in a range of habitats across the Americas, from woodlands to wetlands to urban backyards and even town squares in city centers. Their ability to adapt to diverse landscapes brings the benefit of a varied diet and food sources that are not restricted to one type of prey.
But does this guarantee that screech owls will have a long life? Read on as we answer the question: how long is the average life expectancy of a screech owl?
In captivity, the oldest screech owl was recorded to reach 19 years. In the wild, screech owls live typically shorter lives. Eastern screech owls live for 8 to 10 years, while up to 80 percent of Western screech owls do not live beyond the end of their first year.
There are 23 species of screech owl, but for this article, our focus will be on Western (Megascops kennicottii) and Eastern screech owls (Megascops asio), as these are the most widespread species, and have the most data and statistics available. Many of the less common screech owl species are lacking in research and observations.
We’ll be taking a look at just how long these screech owl species can be expected to live in the wild and in captive settings, such as zoos, and examining the factors that may cut short a screech owl’s life prematurely. If you’re interested in finding out more, read on!
Eastern Screech Owls usually live for up to ten years in the wild
Western screech owls in the wild have a shorter life expectancy than their Eastern counterparts, with a typical lifespan of between 1 and 8 years, compared to 8 to 10 years for the Eastern species. The oldest recorded Western screech owl reached 13 years in the wild, with a free-roaming Eastern screech owl being observed at an age of 14 years and 6 months.
In captivity, a screech owl’s life expectancy is extended, with access to food and safe shelter from predators guaranteed. Western screech owls living in captive conditions can expect to reach an age of 19 years, while Eastern screech owls in captivity live for around 13 years, but on occasion have lived for more than 20 years.
Western Screech Owls have marginally shorter lifespans than Eastern Screech Owls
According to data, between 70 and 80 percent of screech owls do not survive past the end of their first year. Reasons for these premature deaths include collisions with vehicles involving inexperienced juvenile birds, poisoning from eating a contaminated food source (for example mice that have been targeted with pest control toxins), and predation by other owl species and birds of prey, including hawks.
The breeding season of Western screech owls’ begins with courtship in January, followed by establishing a nest site in either an existing tree cavity or an artificial nest box in. Eggs are laid in March to April, with clutches of between 2 and 7 eggs.
Females incubate the eggs for 33 to 34 days, and are brought food by the male. Once the chicks hatch, the brooding female and young continue to be fed by the male until they are around 3 weeks of age. At this point, the female returns to hunting duties and leaves the nestlings for longer periods of time between feeds.
Around 28 to 35 days after hatching, young Western screech owls are ready to fledge, but continue to be supported by their parents for up to two further months as they master the art of hunting and catching prey.
Western screech owl pairs begin breeding at one year of age, and will breed annually.
Western Screech Owl peeking out of the nest
Eastern screech owls follow a similar life cycle, laying one brood a year, with a typical clutch containing 3 to 4 eggs (although anything between 2 and 7 eggs is normal). Eggs are laid in March to April, and incubation takes between 26 and 34 days.
During this period, the male Eastern screech owl brings food to the female, and takes occasional shifts to incubate and brood newly hatched chicks.
Fledgling Eastern screech owls leave the nest at around 31 days, but they are initially supported outside of the nest by the parents until they are able to hunt and live independently.
A pair of Eastern Screech Owlets looking out of the nest
Screech owls are hunted by other predatory birds including hawks and larger owls. Such predators include Great horned owls, Barred owls, Long-eared owls, and Spotted owls, as well as Cooper’s hawks, Red-shouldered hawks, and Northern harriers.
Screech owl nests are frequently raided by small mammals including weasels, mink, skunks, snakes, raccoons, with eggs and nestlings both targeted.
The oldest screech owls on record were a pair of Western screech owls, which lived until the age of 19 in captivity. A wild Western screech owl was ringed in Claremont, California in 1926 and its body recovered there in 1939, making it at least 13 years old. An Eastern screech owl is recorded to have reached 20 years and 8 months.
Close up of a perched Eastern Screech Owl
On average, screech owls eat once or twice a night, but can last for a couple of days without food. They can eat up to around one-third of their body weight, which helps to sustain them for longer periods without food.
The diverse diet of screech owls ensures that food supplies are plentiful all year round. If prey is in short supply, they will expand their geographical range, or switch to eating more insects or earthworms.
Although not as robust as larger owl species, screech owls adapt their feeding habits to winter weather well, e.g. changing their hunting habits to areas that have been cleared of snow such as land alongside highways, to improve their chance of survival.
Close up detailed shot of a Western Screech Owl
While the majority of screech owl species are rated as species of least concern, two have been identified as having less secure futures and declining populations.
The Cloud-forest screech owl, found in limited ranges in Bolivia and Peru, is classed as near threatened. The Santa Marta screech owl, native to a specific valley in northern Colombia and first described in 2017, is listed as vulnerable.
Two new screech owls were identified in 2021, the Alagoas screech owl and the Xingu screech owl. They are likely to be listed as critically endangered, due to the threat of habitat loss and deforestation in their native regions of Brazil.
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