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This marks the third consecutive year that I’ve chronicled the nesting and offspring-rearing behavior of a pair of Western Screech Owls residing in my friend Dan’s backyard. Dan has graciously invited me over to his place during nighttime hours to observe and photograph these birds.
Western Screech Owls are one of three species of Screech Owls living in the United States. The Eastern Screech Owl mostly lives east of the Mississippi. The Whiskered Screech Owl shares our desert environment with its Western cousin but is much less often seen.
Western Screech Owls are small, gray owls that sort of resemble tiny Great Horned Owls. One of these birds isn’t much larger than my fist and much of that consists of its soft plumage. A few years ago Dan set up a nesting box for Screech Owls in his yard. It took a while for owls to move in, but beginning in 2017, a pair of them took up residence. They successfully raised offspring in 2017 and in 2018 and are in the process of doing so again this year. With luck, their offspring will fledge and leave the nest box near the end of this month.
Screech Owls are more or less entirely nocturnal. Their nightly activities follow certain general parameters, although there can be significant variations in behavior from night to night. The female owl laid her eggs in the nest box sometime around the end of March or early in April. For the first month or so she spent nearly 24 hours per day in the box. The male foraged and fed her in the box. Once the youngsters hatched, probably in late April, the female became more active. Currently, she spends time each night outside of the box while the male continues to do most of the hunting.
Here are a couple images of the female.
Screech Owls are almost irresistibly cute. But, don’t be fooled by their cuteness, they are highly efficient predators. The male, depicted in the next two images, is currently hard at work feeding his family. On most evenings, he returns to the nest box a couple of times an hour with prey. His prey consists of anything that he can capture, ranging from insects, like the large cockroach that he’s shown carrying, to lizards, small mammals, and even unwary smaller birds.
Screech Owls have remarkable capability for hunting in near total darkness. They have extraordinary night vision — their eyes are huge in relation to their size. They have oversize feet equipped with long, sharp talons. Their soft plumage enables them to fly noiselessly. I’ve had the experience on several occasions of one of these owls flying only a foot or two from me without ever hearing it fly by. Screech Owls have acute hearing, enabling them to track a mouse or an insect rummaging through the underbrush on a moonless night.
It is truly remarkable to watch these little owls at work. Dan’s yard and adjacent properties have a heavy growth of vegetation ranging from mature mesquite trees to prickly pear cacti, chollas, and a Saguaro or two. The owls navigate effortlessly among these plants. On a couple of occasions Dan and I have tracked one of these owls through thick brush. It’s amazing. We blunder along with out flashlights trying not to get gashed by a thorn-studded branch, while the owls, in pitch darkness, float silently and easily among the thickets.
Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 zoom L lens, illuminated by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, ISO 320, M setting, f8 @ 1/160.