There are more than twenty-one species of screech owl, all native to the Americas, and all typically less than 10 inches in height. But how does their diminutive stature impact their ability to hunt for prey, and does their size limit their diet?
Keep reading as we investigate what screech owls eat and whether their diet is entirely carnivorous.
Screech owls are small, carnivorous birds that prey on anything they are able to catch. Their varied diet depends on their geographical location, and they eat many different types of prey, including insects, bats, mice, other small rodents, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians.
Screech owls are small, compact birds, which naturally excludes much larger prey items from their diet as they are only able to carry animals and birds that fall within a certain size and weight range.
However, they are agile hunters and will silently swoop, catching prey on the ground by surprise as well as catching insects and bats on the wing.
Want to find out more about what screech owls eat and how you stand the best chance of attracting them to your yard? Then please read on as we look into the typical diets of screech owls at different times of the year.
Eastern Screech Owl eating a centipede, Florida
A screech owl’s small size limits it to hunting prey that is small enough for it to catch and hold onto. They are opportunistic birds of prey and will hunt anything they come across that they can grasp with their talons and swallow whole, including small rodents, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and even fish.
Rodents form a large element of the diet of an Eastern screech owl, while a Western screech owl’s diet contains more reptiles and crustaceans.
Their diet is wholly carnivorous and they do not eat any plant matter as their digestive systems cannot process plants. Insects form an important part of a screech owl’s diet, and Eastern screech owls that have adapted to survive in urban settings can frequently be spotted hunting near street lamps, catching insects that are attracted by the light.
Screech owls will eat whatever animals are available for them to prey on, depending on their geographical location and season.
Insects are also a key component of a screech owl’s diet; in particular moths, crickets, grasshoppers and beetles will be eaten throughout the year.
Western Screech Owls tend to consume more reptiles
Due to their own small stature, screech owls eat smaller birds, such as blue jays, chickadees, thrushes, creepers and woodpeckers. Many of the bird species frequently hunted by screech owls are songbirds. Occasionally larger birds may be successfully caught, including quails, pheasants and domestic chickens.
Screech owls can consume up to one-third of their body weight each day – an adult Eastern screech owl weighs around 120 to 245 g (4.2 to 8.5 oz) – but when food sources are readily and consistently available, will eat significantly less.
Screech owls can survive for a couple of days without food, but will extend their range in winter during prolonged periods when rodents and insects might be in shorter supply.
Eastern Screech Owl perched on the branch of a tree
A typical, preferred habitat of a screech owl is established woodland with access to open clearings and fields for hunting. They are alerted to the presence of prey by their highly accurate sense of hearing and wait on a relatively high up perch before swooping in to catch whatever they have detected.
Older trees with large hollows are a good source of food for screech owls, as these offer habitats to bats, insects, small birds and mice.
With habitat lost to urban development in some areas, screech owls have needed to expand their range (and in some cases, their diet), and it’s not uncommon to find them in urban or wetland settings too.
Perched Eastern Screech Owl on the hunt for prey
Screech owls hunt from perches around 1.8 to 3 m (6 to 10 ft) off the ground, using their acute hearing to sense potential prey before swooping down. Their sharp talons and strong, curved beaks help them to catch, kill, and carry their prey, and tear it into smaller pieces if needed.
Because they are so small, if prey cannot be swallowed whole screech owls carry it back to their nest to avoid losing it to an even larger predator.
Screech owls are nocturnal, meaning they hunt and feed at night and sleep during daylight hours. They are active from dusk until dawn, with males emerging earlier each evening than females.
Screech Owls hunt during the night and sleep throughout the day
In winter months, screech owls will continue to eat whatever prey is available, particularly insects and small rodents. Insects, such as moths, beetles and grasshoppers, as well as earthworms, snails, and in wetland areas, crayfish and minnows, form a significant part of their winter diet.
In summer months, a screech owl’s usual diet is supplemented by any young animals that it might encounter, including baby rabbits, shrews, voles, moles, and pocket gophers. Tadpoles are taken from shallow streams, and frogs, salamanders, and lizards are also relatively easy to catch.
Screech Owl resting during the day in it's natural habitat
The initial diet of baby screech owls consists of soft, easy-to-digest food that is regurgitated by their parents. Larger prey items are introduced before they fledge, and once they leave the nest, they continue to be fed and supported by both parents until they gradually master the art of independent hunting by the time they reach 8 to 10 weeks. Initial catches, however, are restricted to insects and earthworms.
Screech owls are active hunters and pursue and prefer to pursue and catch their own prey. Screech owls in captivity, for example in zoos or rescue centers, are fed a controlled diet that typically consists of mice.
Commercially supplied food, for example assorted small dead animals, may also be offered.
It’s illegal to keep any kind of native owl as a pet, and a special license and training are needed for those kept for education purposes or at rehabilitation centers.
Close up of an Eastern Screech Owl chick
Most of a screech owl’s hydration needs are met through their prey, although they may sometimes need to drink additional water.
Many backyards offer a natural source of mice, rats, earthworms, and frogs – which is already an excellent start to attracting screech owls. Some tree cover, with open grassland nearby provides an ideal habitat.
Purpose-built owl nesting boxes will be readily used by screech owls, who choose ready-made nesting spots in tree cavities or artificial boxes made from unfinished wood, particularly pine or cedar.
Nest boxes should be placed around 3 to 9 m (10 to 30 ft) above the ground, with the opening facing southeast.
Many backyards are already the ideal habitats for Screech Owls
Scavenging is not typical or natural behavior for screech owls; they prey on live animals and birds rather than carcasses. However, screech owls are opportunistic birds and if live prey is scarce, and rare incidents of them feeding on already-dead animals have occasionally been recorded.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.