A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Eastern Screech-Owl rufous morph
Juvenile Eastern Screech-Owl
Eastern Screech-Owl, rufous morph, perched in coniferous trees
Eastern Screech-Owl, grey morph, in nest cavity
Juvenile Eastern Screech-Owl climbing along branch
Eastern Screech Owl
16cm to 25cm
48cm to 61cm
121g to 244g
Two color morphs of eastern screech-owls exist, and they are quite unalike: a rufous morph and a gray morph. In each color morph, the plumage of males and females are identical, with size being the key way of distinguishing between the sexes.
In rufous morph birds, found predominantly in the southeastern US, eastern screech-owls have reddish-brown backs, marked with mottled darker and lighter brown marbling, with some white and black wing patterning. Their breast is boldly marked with chestnut red and buffy-white, and their facial disc is pale, ringed with darker feathers and contrasting against the rufous coloring. Eyes are bright yellow with whitish bristling above the bill, and short reddish-brown ear tufts are present on each side of the head.
In gray morph birds, similar patterning is present, but tones are more muted shades of dark brown and gray, offering heightened camouflage against bark and deadwood.
Until they acquire their full adult plumage, juvenile eastern screech-owls have a mottled gray-brown plumage, initially featuring a layer of down which gives them a fuzzy appearance. Their facial disc is less defined than an adult’s and their breast barring is less boldly marked. Their eyes are yellow, like those of a mature bird, although not as vibrant a shade.
Eastern Screech-Owl, gray morph
Eastern Screech-Owl, rufous morph
Among the smallest owl species, eastern screech-owls are only roughly the same size as robins, with females larger and heavier than males.
Eastern Screech-Owl sitting on a branch
Despite its name, screeching does not feature in the eastern screech-owl’s vocal repertoire, with soft whinnying calls, descending in pitch and a wavering whistling tone and an unbroken trilled note the two most frequently heard sounds.
Eastern Screech-Owl calling from nest hole
Prey caught by eastern screech-owls is diverse and ranges from insects and invertebrates to crayfish, small rodents, birds, earthworms, snakes, fish, and lizards.
They are believed to have one of the widest diets among all owls, with a recorded 138 vertebrate species taken, of which up to 67 percent comprised rodents and squirrels, and 83 different bird species, including flycatchers, wrens, starlings, sparrows, waxwings, jays, tits and creepers.
Beetles, caterpillars, and moths are among the most common types of prey brought to nestlings by eastern screech-owls. Larger items include deer mice, frogs, salamanders, and small birds, which are torn into smaller pieces before being fed by the mother to her young.
Eastern Screech-Owl, rufous morph, feeding on an insect
Eastern screech-owls have adapted to survive well in a diverse range of habits, including rural, suburban, and urban settings. They are unaffected by the presence of humans and are resident in city parks, backyards, and roadsides with some tree cover. Forests, woodlands, orchards, and swamps are all regularly chosen for nesting and roosting sites.
True to their name, eastern screech-owls are widespread across the eastern United States and absent west of the Rocky Mountains. They are resident in the entire eastern US, from western Montana south to western Oklahoma and Texas across to the Atlantic Coast as far north as New Hampshire.
In the north, the species has a presence across the Canadian border in parts of southeastern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba and in the east in Quebec and Ontario. To the south, their range extends into northwestern Mexico.
Widespread across the eastern United States, but limited to small geographic regions of Canada and northeastern Mexico, eastern screech-owls are most concentrated in the southeastern regions of the US, where the diverse ecosystems offer a perfect mix of landscapes in which the species thrives.
States with the highest populations include Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and New York, where they are resident in forests and woodlands, and in urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Eastern screech-owls are believed to be the most common owl species in the eastern US, and sightings are regularly reported throughout their range. Estimates put the population in Canada and the United States combined at 680,000, although in Canada, they are considered a lot rarer.
Eastern Screech-Owl, rufous morph, resting near to a tree trunk
The diverse habitats of the Everglades National Park in Florida offer numerous opportunities to spot eastern screech-owls.
Further north, the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina are another well-known spot for sightings. Eastern screech-owls are regularly reported in the forests of Virginia’s Shenadoah National Park, where they are one of the most common owl species.
The extreme southern regions of Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick are the most likely provinces for an eastern screech-owl sighting in Canada. The woodlands in Quebec’s Mont-Saint-Bruno National Park are known to have resident eastern screech-owls.
Juvenile Eastern Screech-Owl in natural habitat
Lifespans of eastern screech-owls in the wild can vary considerably, from a minimum average of one year (data based on the study of female eastern screech-owls in Texas) to a maximum of 20 years and 8 months. Lifespans of around 16 years are fairly typical, with breeding usually occurring for the first time at 1 year of age.
Despite a high level of vigilance around the cavity by both parents, predators including black rat snakes, opossums, raccoons, and ringtails do opportunistically raid eastern screech-owl nest chambers in search of eggs and young.
Larger owls, including great-horned owls, barred owls, and hawks are known to prey on fledglings and adult birds.
In the United States, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the killing, injuring, capturing, and trading of eastern screech-owls, their nests, young, and feathers. Similar legislation in Canada, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, offers similar protection north of the international border.
Eastern screech-owls are a hardy, adaptable species that has broadened its habitat options in recent decades and is able to survive in a range of environments. It is classified as a species of least concern and there are currently no threats to its future survival.
Eastern Screech-Owl adult perching in tree with owlet
Eastern screech-owls are cavity nesters but seem to show little preference between artificial nest boxes and naturally occurring hollows in deciduous trees.
They may also reuse abandoned nests that were originally excavated by other birds, especially northern flickers and red-cockaded woodpeckers. If their chosen site leads to a successful breeding attempt, it will likely be used again in subsequent years.
Nest cavities are usually located between 4 m and 6 m (13 ft to 20 ft) off the ground, although may be as high as 20 m (65 ft).
The nesting period for eastern screech-owls lasts for over four months, from pair formation from late January until mid-March, followed by laying which peaks in late March to early April. Incubation, which is undertaken by the female alone, takes from 29 to 31 days, after which nestlings are tended in the cavity for a further 26 to 28 days before they fledge.
Eastern screech-owls eggs are creamy-white with no external markings on the shell, although may become discolored with brownish streaks from damp nesting material. They are slightly rounded in shape, measuring a maximum of 36 mm by 30 mm (1.4 in by 1.2 in).
A typical clutch contains between 2 and 6 eggs, with 3 or 4 most common, and one single brood is raised each year.
Eastern screech-owls usually form lifelong pairs and breed together each year. If one mate dies, a new mate will be found, and on rare occasions, a male may breed with two different females, with the second female usually displacing the first from her nest cavity and laying her own eggs alongside any that have already been laid.
Two Eastern Screech-Owlets looking out from the nest hole
Bill clapping is used as an initial deterrent towards any intruders that encroach on their territory. Adults rarely attack but will swipe and strike with wings and talons if any intruders threaten their young.
A nocturnal hunter, eastern screech-owls are awake at night and roost during the day and will readily use nest boxes or other natural cavities to rest in during the day, but will also use branches or tangles in vines close to the trunks of tall trees.
In winter, evergreen trees are a popular choice for roosting sites, while during the breeding season, deciduous trees are used for nest cavities, where females roost while incubating and brooding.
Eastern Screech-Owl resting in tree cavity
Eastern screech-owls are a sedentary species and do not leave their home territories in winter, remaining in the same areas throughout the year. Some dispersal from breeding territories may occasionally occur in years of bad weather or poor prey availability.
The eastern and central United States are home to the vast majority of the global population of eastern screech-owls.
Their range extends across the northern border into Canada in a few regions, as well as southwards into northeastern Mexico. However, most eastern screech-owls are resident in the US all year round and are one of the most widespread and common owls in urban and suburban habitats in the east of the country.
Eastern Screech-Owl, rufous morph, roosting close to a tree trunk
The symbolism of eastern screech-owls has different interpretations for different people and cultures.
Some believe that seeing any screech-owl serves as a warning that you must listen to advice and pay attention to what you’re being told. Other meanings include that you are in control of your own decision-making and responsible for the path you take, rather than simply following a suggestion without challenging it.
Eastern screech-owls are opportunistic and will hunt and catch whatever prey they can. Squirrels and eastern screech-owls share the same habitats, making them a readily available food source.
However, as squirrels are active during the day and eastern screech owls are strictly nocturnal, there may not be many occasions when the two cross paths.
Great horned owls and eastern screech-owls do share some overlap in their ranges, as great horned owls are resident across the entire United States. There are also some visual similarities, as both species have ear tufts and similar coloring.
However, it’s pretty unlikely that you’d get the two mixed up due to one huge difference – their size. Great horned owls are around 56 cm (22 in) in length, almost three times the size of the eastern screech owl!
If disturbed or distressed, an eastern screech-owl may strike at a human that attempts to handle it, but generally, they are relatively passive and used to living alongside people in urban settings. Due to their size, they are not capable of inflicting major injuries.
Eastern screech-owls are one of the most likely owls to take up residence in a backyard in the eastern United States, particularly if tall trees with nesting possibilities are available and there is an abundance of insect and invertebrate life nearby.
Nest boxes are used by breeding pairs as well as by individuals as a safe roosting shelter throughout the year. Foliage, including vines and shrubbery, are a great source of foraging opportunities as well as providing camouflage and cover.
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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