Western Screech Owls In Dan’s Backyard — Part III, Fledglings!
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Dan and I were anxious to see and photograph the owlets as they left their nest. We knew that fledging was imminent after watching their antics in the nest box for a couple of nights.
On the evening of May 23 I received a text from Dan telling me that one of the owlets had left the nest box. I was in my car immediately and at Dan’s place within about 10 minutes. Dan greeted me by telling me that two of the owlets had now fledged and were perched near the nest box. It took us a minute or two to locate the youngsters in the dark and I eagerly photographed them once we found them.
With many raptors the youngsters attain nearly adult size by the time that they fledge. That’s certainly true with buteos, such as Red-tailed Hawks, and with accipiters, such as Cooper’s Hawks. But, that’s not the case with screech owls. These young birds were much smaller than their parents when they fledged. I’ve wondered why that is the case and I have a theory, but it’s just that. Screech owls are cavity nesters. They lay their eggs in natural cavities, like holes in tree trunks or Saguaro Cacti, or in the case of the birds in Dan’s yard, in a nest box. The quarters in these cavities can be very cramped. The three youngsters in Dan’s box were competing for space by the time that they’d fledged. I believe that fledging while still very small enables the young owls to coexist in very tight quarters until they can fly.
There were three youngsters in the nest. Dan and I witnessed two of them as fledglings. The third, a bit smaller than the first two, didn’t fledge with its siblings. Dan informs me that it likely fledged a few days after the others fledged.
The two fledglings that we observed have identical plumage but one has a tiny blemish in the lower corner of its left eye, probably a birthmark. It was also noticeably smaller than the first fledgling. Dan and I speculated that the first fledgling is a female and the second one (the one with the birthmark) is a male. It’s also possible that the first fledgling is a day or two older than its sibling and temporarily larger for that reason.
Fledgling screech owl plumage resembles, but is not identical to, adult plumage.
The facial disks on the adult birds are outlined with dark plumage. They have relatively pale breasts marked by dark vertical streaks. The youngsters lack the outlined facial disk. Their breasts and abdomens have plumage in a gray and white herringbone pattern.
I returned to Dan’s yard the following night. The youngsters changed their behavior markedly after just 24 hours. Whereas they were clinging to the nest tree on the first night, now they were flying with ease. Dan and I spent an hour chasing these young birds as they flitted from tree to tree, and occasionally landed on lower-growing vegetation such as Prickly Pear Cactus.
By the next evening, all of the owls, parents and offspring, were gone. It had been quite an experience, including several visits spanning nearly two full months of observation. My heartfelt thanks to Dan for allowing me to visit his backyard so many times. I had never seen, much less observed, screech owls prior to this experience and I believe I learned a lot about them. They are certainly endearing and beautiful as well. I wish these birds nothing but the best.
Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite. All images shot at ISO 400 and 1/160, M setting. The first image, f6.3; the second, f5.6; the third, f11; the fourth, f5.6; the fifth, f6.3.