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.
Whiskered screech-owls are small owls with prominent ear tufts. They are primarily dark gray with light rust-colored streaks and closely barred markings on their breast, belly, head, neck, back, wings, and tail.
In the shaded cloud forest landscapes of Latin America, a number of whiskered screech-owls are a rufous morph, which is a reddish-brown version of the more widespread gray coloring.
Unique adult features of this species include whisker-like bristle-tipped feathers on the facial disc, a yellow-olive bill, and vivid yellow-orange eyes. Feathering is present on the toes, which, like the feet, are small.
Female and male whiskered screech-owls are alike in appearance and coloring, with the only visual difference being that females are noticeably larger and heavier than males.
Initially, juvenile whiskered screech-owls have a downy covering and lighter coloring with their gray body feathers barred with narrow cinnamon stripes.
Whiskered Screech-Owl in woodland habitat
Whiskered screech-owls are among North America’s smallest native owl species, slightly larger than an elf owl and the northern pygmy owl. Females are larger than males in length, weight and wingspan.
Whiskered screech-owls have distinct calls, which can be used as a reliable way to identify the species. A series of short whistled notes on a single pitch are used as a territory marker.
Trilled songs that change pitch at the end, consisting of a series of irregular long and short hoots, are heard as a contact call and are often compared to Morse Code.
In the northern parts of their range, western screech-owls feed mainly on invertebrates, which represent 94 percent of their prey items, including caterpillars, centipedes, beetles, and larvae. Lizards, snakes, bats, and mice are also eaten, particularly further to the south.
Beetles, moths, and caterpillars are among the most common prey brought to nestlings in Arizona. Larger prey, including mice and lizards, are often cached and fed at a later stage, having been ripped into smaller chunks by the parents.
Whiskered Screech-Owl on the look-out for prey
Montane landscapes with forest-covered canyons are the habitat of choice for whiskered screech-owls. Evergreen and mixed-species woodlands at altitudes of 1200 m to 2500 m (4000 ft to 8200 ft), particularly those crossed by rivers or streams, and with dense canopy cover are preferred.
The extreme southwest of New Mexico and southeast of Arizona form the northernmost boundary of the whiskered screech-owl’s distribution, which continues through the upland forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental range and into parts of the east and central-south of the country, across the border into the Guatemala highlands. The range continues into southern Honduras, northern El Salvador and ends in northern Nicaragua.
Whiskered screech-owls have a discontinuous range across parts of the United States, Mexico, and Central America. Countries with resident populations include the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
Within their habitat, at elevations upwards of 1200 m (4000ft) whiskered screech-owls are relatively common, although their nocturnal habits and preference for densely vegetated forest landscapes make them challenging to spot.
Their distinctive calls offer the best way of confirming a possible sighting. Precise population figures for this species are unknown.
Whiskered Screech-Owl perched on a branch
Only two states report regular sightings of whiskered screech-owls: New Mexico and Arizona.
Arizona’s mountain ranges from the Santa Catalinas south all have resident whiskered screech-owls, with good sighting spots at Bear Canyon, to the north of Tucson, Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas, Miller Canyon in the Huachucas and Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahuas.
Whiskered screech-owls are not resident in Canada and have not been recorded as a native or visiting species there.
Breeding occurs for the first time at one year of age and is annual. Few longevity records are available, with a female identified to have reached 4 years of age, although it is generally agreed that the average and maximum lifespans for the species are higher.
Spotted owls and Cooper’s hawks are known to prey on adult and fledgling whiskered screech-owls. Nests are raided by green rat snakes and gopher snakes, as well as coatis and raccoons.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of the United States protects whiskered screech-owls from being killed, injured, traded, or taken into captivity. The legislation also offers protection to their eggs, feathers, young, and nest sites.
In New Mexico, whiskered screech-owls are registered as a Threatened Species, due to their limited range that does not go beyond the Peloncillo-Guadalupe Mountains.
On a wider scale, there are no urgent threats to survival although habitat loss in El Salvador is thought to have led to local population declines. Overall, they are rated as a species of least concern.
Whiskered Screech-Owl in natural habitat
Whiskered screech-owls do not build their own nests, relying instead on empty cavities deserted by other species. Natural cavities are used, as well as those excavated by northern flickers and acorn woodpeckers, which may have been previously enlarged by squirrels.
In Arizona, nests are commonly located in Arizona sycamore, Arizona oak, or Chihuahua pine; little information on nesting is available from other parts of their range.
Nestboxes are readily used where available, and the preferred height for cavities and boxes is between 5 m and 7 m (16 ft and 23 ft).
Pair formation for whiskered screech-owls begins in March each year, with eggs laid between April and May, although earlier clutches are often laid in southern parts of the range. The incubation period is not well-documented but is believed to be between three and four weeks. Females incubate alone, with males feeding them on the nest.
Eggs laid by whiskered screech-owls are rounded and creamy white. A typical clutch contains 3 to 4 eggs, which measure around 28 mm by 34 mm (1.1 in by 1.3 in).
Whiskered screech-owls are a monogamous species during the breeding season, and pair bonds have been seen to last beyond one single year.
Two Whiskered Screech-Owl perching together
In their natural surroundings, whiskered screech-owls are typically unaggressive and tolerant of nearby birds, tending instead to usually ignore their presence or sing at them.
Aggression has been observed in research situations where decoys and birdsong were played nearby and their reactions recorded. In these scenarios, a higher degree of intolerance was shown, with hostile behavior witnessed.
A nocturnal species, whiskered screech-owls spend days roosting in trees and nights hunting from perches in forest landscapes. Females roost in the nest cavity overnight when brooding young, rarely accompanied by the male.
After fledging, males and females find suitable roosting spots in the same tree, initially positioning themselves beneath the branches where recent fledglings have chosen to settle for the night.
Whiskered Screech-Owl perching in the trees
Whiskered screech-owls are non-migratory, remaining in the same territories all year round. In higher elevations, some temporary movement towards lower slopes and foothills may occur in winter.
Only a very limited area of the United States has a presence of whiskered screech-owls. The extreme southeast corner of Arizona, in Cochise, Pima, and Santa Cruz counties, and to the east, in the Peloncillo and Guadalupe Mountains of Hidalgo County in New Mexico.
Whiskered Screech-Owl perching in forest landscape
Whiskered screech-owls are forest-dwelling owls, found in the extreme southern regions of New Mexico and Arizona, and into Mexico, spreading into Central America as far south as Nicaragua. Their name comes from the bristle-tipped feathers that are visible on their faces.
Whiskered screech-owls resemble the gray morph western screech-owls, but are slightly smaller and have smaller feet. They also have bolder cross-barred markings on the breast, similar to those of eastern screech-owls.
The two species have a small overlap of ranges, although western screech-owls are found in a wider geographical area, while whiskered screech-owls are only present in a limited region of the United States, immediately across the borders of New Mexico and Arizona, but largely confined to a strip of central-northwestern Mexico.
15cm to 19cm
70g to 120g
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.
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.
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.
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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