Western Screech Owls In Dan’s Backyard — Part I, Meet The Parents

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More than three years ago my friend Dan hung a nest box for screech owls in his backyard.  The box sat empty until recently.  This spring, however, it was taken over by a pair of these little owls and they raised a family.  Dan graciously invited me over to chronicle them.  Thanks to Dan, I visited his yard on multiple occasions in April and May and was able to photograph the owls as they reared their young, culminating with images of two of the newly fledged youngsters.  I’ll be reporting on this adventure over the next three days.

Western Screech Owls are one of three species of screech owls living in the United States.  A second species, the Eastern Screech Owl, lives east of the Mississippi River and doesn’t inhabit Arizona.  A third species, the Whiskered Screech Owl, does live in southern Arizona and its territory overlaps that of the Western Screech Owl, but it is much less common than its Western cousin.  The birds in Dan’s yard are definitely Western Screech Owls.  All three species resemble each other, although the Eastern variety has a color variant consisting of mostly tan plumage that neither the Western nor the Whiskered display.  Western Screen Owls are mostly gray, black and white, with some deep brown accents.

These birds are quite small.  In appearance they resemble Great Horned Owls but they are tiny compared to that species.  An adult Screech Owl weighs about five ounces and could easily perch in the palm of one’s hand.  They are quite common but humans rarely see them.  That’s because they are exclusively nocturnal and also because they are absolute geniuses at camouflage.  A screech owl perched on a tree trunk is virtually invisible.

The owls’ most notable feature is certainly their eyes.  They are gigantic in proportion to their bodies, far larger than our eyes are in proportion to our bodies.  These owls have extraordinary night vision.  Dan and I watched them flit through heavy vegetation in almost total darkness.  The owls’ huge eyes make these little birds seem irresistibly cute.  As cute as they may be, they are fierce predators, hunting invertebrates, snakes and lizards, rodents, and smaller birds.  Screech owls have massive feet in proportion to their diminutive bodies, and they make good use of their talons in hunting prey.

The owls in Dan’s yard spent most of April brooding.  The female did all of the sitting, staying in her nest box for almost a month, poking her head out of the opening from time to time.  The male hunted and fed her while she incubated her eggs.

That all changed in late April.  The youngsters hatched — there were three of them — and the female became able to assist in feeding the family.  She had a definite routine once she stopped brooding.  She’d sleep all day long.  Every evening she’d emerge from her box right at sunset (as the youngsters grew she often slept outside of the box during daylight hours but never more than a few feet away).  She’d fly to one of several perches in Dan’s yard, where she would pause for a few moments before going off to hunt.  Frequently, the male and female would call to each other, uttering very soft hoots.  We could distinguish the male’s calls from the female’s because his calls were lower in tone than were hers.

The mother bird, shown in the first two images, is not at all timid around humans.  It was possible for us to approach her quite closely as she perched.  She didn’t seem to mind us photographing her.  Not even the firing of our flash attachments seemed to annoy her.  She’d sit for a while, she’d watch us, and then she’d go about her business of hunting.

The male  has plumage that is identical to the female’s, but he is much smaller than she is, perhaps two-thirds her size.  During daylight hours he’d perch and sleep a couple of dozen yards from the nest box. Eventually, Dan discovered him sleeping underneath the next door neighbor’s porch overhang.  As with the female, the male became active once the sun went down.  We watched on several nights as the male delivered a steady supply of prey to his offspring. One evening I photographed the male delivering a centipede to the kids in the nest box.

It didn’t take long for the young owls to become active.  I’ll discuss that in the next post.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, ISO 500.  The first two images shot at f11 @ 1/160, the third at f9 @ 1/160.

2 responses to “Western Screech Owls In Dan’s Backyard — Part I, Meet The Parents”

  1. Gunda says :

    I have only visited Arizona but live in New York City. I cannot express how much I am enjoying every one of your beautiful photos and detailed description. Thank you so very much for sharing these treasures. Gunda

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