Eastern Screech Owls are incredibly common throughout their range but due to their small size and excellent camouflage abilities, you’ve probably never seen one! If you live anywhere near trees in eastern North America, you’ve likely heard one, though.
In folklore, people thought the descending whinnying call of the Eastern Screech Owl sounded like a lonely soul wailing, “ohhhhhhh, that I had never been booorrrrnnn.” I was lucky enough to hear this call myself while on a humid summer night hike in central Texas.
If you want your own Eastern Screech Owl experience, keep reading! I’ll break down where you can find these plucky little owls, how to identify them, and how you can help them out as they move into urban areas.
Eastern Screech Owls are members of the order Strigiformes, which contains all of the world’s owl species in its two families: Tytonidae and Strigidae. They are included in the family Strigidae – known as the “typical owls” or “true owls” – which includes 230 species in its 24 genera.
The Eastern Screech Owl is one of 25 species in the genus Megascops. Owls of the genus Megascops are collectively referred to as “screech owls.” Although they rarely screech, Megascops owls are known for their complex two-song vocalizations. This is the best way to tell the different species apart!
Screech owls are closely related to the scops owls of the Old World and are only found in the Americas. They are small but stocky, with prominent ear tufts, short rounded wings, and relatively large talons for their size.
Due to their voracious hunting strategies, Eastern Screech Owls are also known as “feathered wildcats.” The specific epithet of their Latin name, otus, is ancient Greek for “small, eared owl.”
Eastern Screech Owls are very similar to Western Screech Owls and were considered the same species until 1983.
Taxonomy At a Glance
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Strigiformes
- Family: Strigidae
- Genus: Megascops
- Species: Megascops otus
How to Identify the Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owls are unmistakable throughout most of their range, being the only small owl with ear tufts you’re likely to encounter. Identifying them can be a little tricky, though, because they come in a variety of different colors.
Full-grown Eastern Screech Owls stand about 8.5 inches tall and are about the size of a pint glass. They are compact, stocky birds with large heads and feet relative to their bodies. Their long, fluffy ear tufts are very distinctive when raised and make the head appear rounded when lowered.
Eastern Screech Owls have well-defined facial disks, but the border around them is darker on the lower portion of the cheeks. They have large, yellow eyes with pale “eyebrows.” Their bills are dark yellow to greenish at the base and have a paler tip.
Like most owls, Eastern Screech Owls have earth-toned plumage that allows them to camouflage when roosting during the day. Their overall body coloration ranges from light gray to brown to rufous depending on the color morph.
In all cases, they are heavily mottled, with dark vertical streaks and fainter barring forming a cross-hatched pattern on their chests and bellies. Their backs and heads are less marked but they have a row of large white spots outlined in black on their shoulders. Their legs and toes are covered with buffy feathers.
Eastern Screech Owls have relatively short, rounded wings with a total wingspan of fewer than two feet. They typically drop from a perch, fly in a straight line for no more than 75 feet, then rise up to a new perch in a U-shaped pattern. This flight behavior can be helpful if you are only getting a shadowy glimpse of the owl at night.
Female Eastern Screech Owls are slightly larger than the males, as is the case with most owl species. The males are lighter-weight and more agile, which makes them more efficient hunters. Females, meanwhile, have a more powerful bill strike and are capable defenders of the nest and young.
The species also exhibits clinal variation, that is, slight differences in body size and plumage depending on location within their range. Eastern Screech Owls are larger and lighter the farther north and west you go. Likewise, they get smaller and darker as you head south and east. Birds of the southernmost regions also have less feathers on their toes while northern birds are bigger and paler with thicker plumage.
Newly hatched owlets are covered in thick white down. Older owlets have a two-toned down coat that is darker yellowish-brown above and lighter below. Fledglings are downy but have fine barring throughout their plumage and darker heads as their adult feathers begin to emerge. They lack ear tufts.
Juvenile Eastern Screech Owls look similar to adults but have darker plumage on their heads, backs, and chests. They are finely barred throughout their bodies and either lack ear tufts or have small partially developed downy ear tufts.
Eastern Screech Owls come in three main color morphs, all of which may be present in a given population although the relative proportion of the morphs varies with region. Genetics appear to determine morph type but habitat plays a role as well.
The gray morph is the most numerous. These owls have gray plumage with brown markings and have a yellowish bill. Birds of the Great Plains region are paler gray overall and have greenish bills.
The red morph is most common in the Mideastern and southeastern United States, where it is thought to camouflage with reddish barked pines and the fall leaves of the hardwood forests. These birds are bright chestnut to rufous throughout their plumage with less distinct markings on their chests and backs. Red morph owls are less tolerant of cold weather.
The brown morph is considered an intermediate between the gray and red morphs. These owls have light brown plumage with a rusty tinge.
There are five subspecies of the Eastern Screech Owl, all of which occur in North America. All three morphs can occur within each subspecies. They are often distinguished by their vocalizations.
- Megascops otus asio is more sparsely marked and has densely feathered toes. Its territorial song ends with a long, drawn-out whinny. Gray and red morphs are both common. It is found from eastern Minnesota to southwestern Quebec and in southern New Hampshire south to Tennessee, Missouri, and northern South Carolina.
- Megascops otus floridanus is the smallest subspecies. It has finer and more dense markings. Brown and red morphs are both common. It is found in Florida, southern Georgia, western Louisiana, and southeastern Arkansas.
- Megascops otus hasbroucki is similar to M. o. asio but has denser markings and buffy tones on its back. The gray morph is the most common and the red morph is rare. It is found in the Oklahoma panhandle, southern Kansas, and in central Texas.
- Megascops otus maxwelliae is similar to M. o. asio but is paler and less heavily marked overall. The gray morph is the most common, with red morphs being rare and very pale rufous. It is found in central Montana, southeastern Saskatchewan, and southern Manitoba as well as south to western Kansas.
- Megascops otus mccallii is similar is M. o. hasbroucki but is bigger and has fine, dense markings. The gray morph is the most prevalent, with the red morph being very rare and absent in some areas. It is found in southern Texas and northern Mexico. Unlike the other subspecies, it does not produce a whinny at the end of its song. It also sings a faster and more uneven tremolo song.
The closely related Western Screech Owl overlaps the Eastern Screech Owl’s range in some areas of the west and is nearly identical. The two species often hybridize as well. Overall, Eastern Screech Owls are browner, more heavily marked, and have lighter bills than Western Screech Owls. Western Screech Owls also lack red and brown morphs and are always gray. Their vocalizations are quite different and this is the most reliable way to tell the two species apart.
In Mexico, Eastern Screech Owls may occur alongside the Middle American Screech Owls. Eastern Screech Owls have larger bodies and also have larger feet.
In parts of the west, they may also overlap with the Whiskered Screech Owl, which is much smaller, has more streaking on its chest, has smaller feet, and lives at higher elevations.
They may also occur alongside the Flammulated Owl, but this species is much smaller, lives at higher elevations, has red markings, and has dark eyes.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl, another small western owl, is significantly smaller, dark brown, has a more defined facial disk, and lacks ear tufts.
Eastern Screech Owl Vocalizations and Sounds
Eastern Screech Owls are talented vocalists and are most often heard at night. Despite their name, they rarely screech but both males and females hoot and pairs often perform duets. Unlike most owls, they have two different song types.
The main song of male Eastern Screech Owls is a quavering falsetto descending whinny that has been described as the neighing of a miniature horse. The song lasts about one-half of a second to two seconds and is often repeated. Males use this song to proclaim their territories. It is most often heard in the fall when males are redefining their boundaries.
Listen to this red morph Eastern Screech Owl’s territorial song:
Females may whinny in response to a male’s song, usually to signal interest in copulation or to request food during courtship. Like most owls, their hoots are higher-pitched due to their less developed voice boxes.
Male and female Eastern Screech Owls also issue a long, lower-pitched whistled trill that some birders believe sounds like a bouncing ball. For this reason, it is also called a bounce song. The trill lasts three to six seconds, often has a quavering quality, and may rise or fall at the end.
Check out this Eastern Screech Owl red morph’s song:
Tremolo songs are often repeated several times and you may hear a second owl answering. It serves as a contact call, and pairs and their fledglings use it to keep tabs on one another at night. Males also use it to attract females. It is the most common vocalization of the Eastern Screech Owl.
Both song types may be given one after the other and males and females may sing to each other day and night during the breeding season in elaborate duets.
Listen to this Eastern Screech Owl singing both types of songs together:
In addition to their two song types, Eastern Screech Owls also issue soft barks, chuckling sounds, low hoots, loud alarm barks, and a three to four-note chuckle series when agitated, such as when being mobbed by other birds. Rarely, adults will screech when defending their nest or young.
Begging juveniles produce a short, harsh rasping sound that drops in pitch. All owls will hiss and clack their bills when threatened.
Where Does the Eastern Screech Owl Live?
Eastern Screech Owls predominantly live in eastern North America, with their range extending slightly into northern Mexico. Of all owls found east of the Rocky Mountains, they accept the widest range of habitats.
Eastern Screech Owls can be found east of the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains and Texas east to the Atlantic coast of the United States. They can also be found in southeastern Canada and northeastern Mexico.
Eastern Screech Owls can be found wherever there are trees within their range. They have a preference for deciduous forests with open understories, but are highly adaptable and will also accept orchards, farm groves, forest edges, swamps, woodlots, marshes, meadows, riparian river corridors, mixed woods, tree groves bordering fields, and even city parks, gardens, and shady suburban areas.
They rely on tree cavities for nesting and may be absent from areas where snags and other suitable nest sites are lacking.
Eastern Screech Owl Migration
Most Eastern Screech Owls are year-round residents but individuals living in the far north may move slightly south in the fall and winter to escape snowpack and find prey. Similarly, owls living at higher elevations may move downslope in winter to find food.
Eastern Screech Owl Diet and Feeding
Eastern Screech Owls are opportunistic and will take any prey their small bodies can successfully subdue. They have a preference for insects and small rodents but have a very diverse diet.
Large insects make up most of the Eastern Screech Owl’s diet. Crickets, beetles, caterpillars, moths, grasshoppers, and cicadas are all taken. They will also take other arthropods like spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and millipedes. In the spring and summer months, insects are their main prey.
Small rodents like deer mice, jumping mice, white-footed mice, meadow voles, and, in urban areas, house mice make up a large portion of their diet, especially in the winter months.
Eastern Screech Owls will also prey on birds, especially in the winter and when living in rural areas. Songbirds including swallows, flycatchers, waxwings, thrushes, finches, sparrows, chickadees, warblers, Common Grackles, and Red-winged Blackbirds are all taken. European Starlings and House Sparrows are common prey in urban areas.
They also prey on Northern Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, doves, quail, and shorebirds. On occasion, they will take the young of larger birds such as American Woodcocks, Ruffed Grouse, and Northern Bobwhite. They have also been known to eat Northern Saw-whet Owls and even other Eastern Screech Owls. All in all, they have been known to prey upon around 100 different species of birds.
Eastern Screech Owls will also feed on red squirrels, shrews, young rabbits, bats, snakes, lizards, baby soft-shelled turtles, tree frogs, leopard frogs, toads, crayfish, newts, salamanders, earthworms, and leeches.
Some owls will even snatch tadpoles and fish – including green sunfish, American gizzard shad, and brown bullheads – from shallow water.
Eastern Screech Owl Breeding
The Eastern Screech Owl’s breeding season starts in early March and lasts until mid-July, with eggs being laid in April. In warmer regions, the season may start even earlier. They raise one brood each year.
A male Eastern Screech Owl advertises his territory with his whinnying song, typically defending a small area that includes several possible nest sites. An interested female will answer his songs and enter his territory.
The male then performs aerial dive displays, bows to the female while perched, raises and lowers his wings in a dance, clacks his bill, and offers her prey items. If she accepts, they enter into a pair bond that will likely be lifelong.
Pairs preen each other and duet frequently early in the breeding season. Females also respond to their mate’s tremolo song with a whinnying song to signal interest in copulation or desire for food.
Rarely, a male may take two females as mates. When this happens, the new female often evicts the first female from the nest, laying her eggs on top of the former female’s and incubating both sets.
Eastern Screech Owls select nest sites in tree cavities about five to 30 feet above the ground – sometimes even selecting a site 80 feet up. Old woodpecker holes are a favorite, but the entrance hole must be at least three to eight inches wide so only nests made by Pileated Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers work.
They will also use old squirrel nest holes and natural tree cavities formed by rot or fungus. In the absence of suitable sites, they have been known to nest in wood piles, crates left on the ground, and nest boxes designed for Purple Martins, Wood Ducks, and Rock Doves. When this happens, they often kill the martins and pigeons.
Like most owls, Eastern Screech Owls do not construct a nest. The female settles into whatever debris is already present in the cavity and creates an impression of her body. They frequently reuse the same nest year after year, laying eggs on top of wood chips, old feathers, and droppings from the old nest.
Surprisingly, cavity-nesting European Starlings often outcompete Eastern Screech Owls for nest sites as they are more aggressive.
Female Eastern Screech Owls lay four to five eggs per clutch. Rarely they will lay up to eight eggs, but four is the average clutch size. She lays eggs at two-day intervals until the clutch is complete.
The eggs are white and elliptical with a slight gloss. The female does most of the incubating while the male brings her food, but sometimes he will take a shift. Incubation starts with the first egg and takes 26 to 34 days. The male will stockpile prey in the nest cavity to prepare for the hungry owlets.
Sometimes, Eastern Screech Owls will bring a live blind snake to the nest and release it. The snake quickly burrows into the debris at the bottom of the nest and feeds on insects. Biologists believe the snake keeps the nest clean and reduces the likelihood that the young will be infected by parasites.
Owlets are altricial when they first hatch, meaning their eyes are closed and they are helpless. Newly hatched young are covered in a thick coat of white down. After a few days, they develop a two-toned second coat that is yellowish-brown above and lighter below.
The female broods the young for the first two weeks, receiving the prey the male brings and tearing it into smaller pieces that she offers to the owlets. After 10 days, the owlets start feeding themselves and coughing up pellets. Competition in the nest is fierce, and in years where food is less abundant older owlets may kill and eat their younger and weaker siblings.
After two weeks, the female leaves the nest and assists the male with the arduous task of feeding the hungry young. Raising young is taxing on the adults, and they eat less in the summer months. At around 17 days of age, the owlets begin peeking out of the nest hole and exploring.
Being larger and having stronger strike abilities, the female is the main defender of the nest and young. Female Eastern Screech Owls are fiercely protective mothers and have even been known to attack people who get too close to their nests.
Feathers begin to replace the owlets’ baby down between two and three weeks of age. At four weeks old they begin branching, in which they clamber out of the nest and onto surrounding branches, using their claws, bills, and wings to climb around.
After they leave the nest, the female and her young roost communally in nearby trees. The young remain with their parents for another eight to 10 weeks before dispersing to find territories of their own.
Eastern Screech Owl Population
Eastern Screech Owls are widespread throughout most of their range but have declined slightly in some areas.
Partners in Flight estimates a current breeding population of 560,000 birds. The species has declined around 1% annually and, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, has experienced a population decline of 37% between 1966 and 2019.
Is the Eastern Screech Owl Endangered?
Currently, the Eastern Screech Owl is not listed as endangered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List lists the species as having a status of Least Concern, meaning it is not at immediate risk for extinction.
Population decreases are likely due to habitat loss, as the Eastern Screech Owl relies on trees and standing dead snags for nesting and roosting. Luckily, they are highly adaptable birds. Their ability to accept a wide range of habitats and prey and live alongside humans has allowed them to prosper in urban areas.
Eastern Screech Owls in urban and suburban habitats have better survival and successfully fledge more young than their country-dwelling counterparts. This is likely due to the presence of abundant prey, water, and trees in urban settings as well as warmer temperatures and a decrease in predators.
In the absence of their preferred tree cavity nest sites, Eastern Screech Owls readily accept nest boxes. Adding nest boxes to more open habitats that ordinarily would not support the owls has helped the species flourish in more areas. Owls living in the Great Plains have expanded their range as more trees have been planted – previously they were restricted to the riparian forests along rivers and streams.
Eastern Screech Owl Habits
Eastern Screech Owls live among us in urban environments but are rarely seen due to their small size and nocturnal habits. The best way to catch a glimpse of one is to listen to their tremulous whinnying and bouncing ball songs early in the evening in spring and summer.
Territorial and Tremolo Songs
Eastern Screech Owls are very vocal birds. Males issue their whinnying songs year-round to proclaim their territories but become busy feeding their young in spring and summer so may be less vocal. They start up again in the fall after the young disperse.
Males and females communicate with each other year-round using their bouncing ball tremolo songs and frequently duet early in the breeding season.
Listen for the owls in wooded areas starting at dusk in spring and summer. Their vocalizations are surprisingly loud for such small birds.
Eastern Screech Owls are perch hunters, sitting on low limbs at forest edges six to 10 feet above the ground and scanning the surrounding area for prey. They hunt using a combination of sight and sound like many owls, using their asymmetrical ear openings to accurately hone in on prey – even insects below leaves or rodents below the snow.
Owing to modified feathers that muffle the sound of their flight, they swoop silently down on their prey, sometimes hovering briefly to plan their attack. Insects are snatched from the ground or plucked from leaves. Bats and moths are grabbed right out of the air with their talons. Rodents, fish, and other prey are pounced upon from above. Birds are ambushed while they roost or are captured while migrating at night.
Most prey is swallowed whole on-site, but larger prey may be carried to a safe perch to be torn into smaller pieces. They cough up one to two pellets full of indigestible parts each day.
Eastern Screech Owls take advantage of abundant prey, often caching items in tree cavities for up to four days. They will return to profitable foraging sites night after night.
At dawn, Eastern Screech Owls return to one of several favorite roost sites within their territories. Tree cavities are preferred, but water tanks, boxcars, and old buildings will do if nothing else is available. They will also roost close to the trunk of dense trees or shrubs.
When roosting, Eastern Screech Owls press their feathers as close as possible to the tree trunk or object they are roosting against and erect their ear tufts. This further disguises their outline and makes them nearly impossible to see.
Eastern Screech Owls will adopt the “tall-thin” posture if approached at their roost, drawing their bodies up as tall as possible, flattening their feathers to their bodies, erecting their ear tufts, and closing their eyes to slits.
Like most owls, Eastern Screech Owls active during the day are ceaselessly mobbed by songbirds like chickadees and titmice and corvids like Blue Jays and crows. The birds issue a slew of agitated calls while dive-bombing the hapless owl. Look and listen for this raucous display and you might find an Eastern Screech Owl.
Eastern Screech Owl Predators
While they are fierce hunters themselves, Eastern Screech Owls are no bigger than an American Robin and often find themselves in the role of prey just as often.
By far their biggest predator is the Great Horned Owl. Eastern Screech Owls share nearly their entire range with these much larger cousins and often find themselves in similar habitats. Eastern Screech Owls avoid areas with Great Horned Owls as much as possible.
During the day, diurnal raptors are a threat. Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Northern Harriers, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Rough-legged Hawks will all prey on unsuspecting screech owls.
Virginia opossums, weasels, American minks, Eastern fox squirrels, raccoons, ringtails, skunks, snakes, crows, and Blue Jays will all prey on eggs and nestlings if they get the chance. European Starlings will also destroy eggs and nestlings to steal nest sites.
Other threats to Eastern Screech Owls include collisions with cars, trains, and windows and the consumption of poisoned rodents.
Note: Avoid using poisoned bait traps to kill mice and rats. Eastern Screech Owls feed on poisoned rodents and the toxins accumulate in their bodies, which can eventually lead to paralysis and death. They also feed the meat to their young which can be lethal to them.
Eastern Screech Owl Lifespan
70% of young Eastern Screech Owls do not survive their first year of life. If they do, they can live quite long. The oldest known wild Eastern Screech Owl was at least 14 years and six months old. In captivity, they can live up to 20 years.
Answer: Eastern Screech Owls adapt very well to life in urban and suburban settings and can easily be enticed to take up residence in your yard. If you live within their range, consider planting more trees or adding a nest box to your yard. Make sure the entrance hole is at least three to eight inches wide to accommodate the owls. You can also add a water source like a birdbath as well as a bird feeder, which will attract prey.
Answer: Yes, Eastern Screech Owls eat squirrels. They feed on a wide variety of prey and will take small mammals up to the size of a young rabbit. This size range includes most squirrels.
Answer: No, Eastern Screech Owls are too small to prey on cats and dogs. As they only weigh six ounces, adult cats and dogs are far too big for these owls and would be more dangerous to the owl. Very young puppies and kittens could be at risk, as Eastern Screech Owls can capture prey up to the size of a young rabbit.
Answer: Yes, but only out of desperation. Eastern Screech Owls may hunt during the day when feeding a large brood of hungry young in late spring and summer. They most often hunt at night, starting at dusk.
Answer: Yes, Eastern Screech Owls can screech but it is very rare. Their most common vocalization is a trill that is a series of rapid hoots. They also issue quavering whinnies that last several seconds in addition to many barks and chuckling noises. Begging fledglings issue a loud rasp that could be considered a screech and adults will rarely screech when threatened or agitated.
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