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Thursday, December 25, 2014

One early morning last week I was serenaded by a screech owl. It reminded me of how much I appreciate their call, something that borders on the eerie and could easily give goose bumps to the uninitiated.

Their call

Most people assume that all owls make a “hoot” call. While local owls such as the barred owl and great horned owl do that, two others don’t — the barn owl (a topic of a future article) and the screech owl.

Their calls are not hoots at all, and are actually a little frightening. Their calls can scare young children and will do the same to many a grown adult.

The screech owl, despite its name, does not screech. Instead, it has a descending, mournful call that some folks describe as “whinny.” It sounds just like one would think a ghost might, or even perhaps a banshee, the mythical she-creature that foretells the death of a family member.

A brief recording of the call can be heard online:

That sound is easy for a person to imitate with some whistling, and doing so can bring the bird that’s been calling — and other curious ones — near you, maybe even within feet of your face. It’s a pretty neat trick that also works quite well — maybe even more so — with barred owls.

Sometimes, the quivering call ends with a sharp trill. Other times, you might hear that trill all by itself.

The owls use that to define their territory.

Their appearance

Screech owls aren't big — only seven to 10
inches long as adults. (PHOTO COURTESY
When one thinks of an owl, they think of large birds like the great horned owl and snowy owl. Screech owls are anything but large.

An adult screech owl is only seven to 10 inches long. To put that into perspective, the common mourning dove is 12 inches long from tip of the beak to end of the tail.

It looks like a third of the screech owl’s body is the head, which sports the traditional large owl eyes. Atop their head are 2 ear tufts, sort of like devil horns. They have a mottled appearance and there are two color phases of the same species: One is grey, while the other is a reddish chestnut, almost bright.

Where to find them

In Niagara County, screech owls can be found almost anywhere there are large trees to be found near open areas ... woodlots, orchards, farms, yards, and even in the Lockport city limits. They feed exclusively on rodents — mice and voles — so, areas where they are present in numbers, like a dairy farm, can be havens for screech owls.

Large, older trees give them their homes, as they build their nests in cavities, not out on the branches or in a crotch of a tree as the great horned owl does.

If you don’t have any trees with large hollows in them, you can still bring screech owls to your lawn. A wood duck nest box is a perfect home and you will see many people put up one of these structures in the lawn just to attract screech owls. My parents have had some success doing this, and there’s not much cuter than an inquisitive little screech owl peering out of nest box to watch you.

You can sometimes find these critters during the day with help from some of your avian friends. If you see a mixed flock of songbirds like chickadees and blue jays being quite noisy, even scolding, about something in a tree, look closely. A screech owl may be close to the trunk, in a crotch, or hiding in spruce boughs. You will have to look carefully, as the little owls remain motionless and erect so as to not be seen. The grey phase especially can be hard to see because its cryptic colors make it almost camouflaged with bark.

If you hear one of these beautiful creatures at night don’t be afraid. Get out of bed, grab a flashlight, and see if you can exchange calls with him to bring him in for a close look. It’s an adorable sight that doesn’t match their spooky calls at all.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where some folks say his house is haunted. He prefers to blame the screech owls. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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