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In The Country

The Little Horned Owl Whooo Could

Ranger Jen Miller
Cunningham Falls State Park

(Oct, 2011) If beauty pageants and talent shows were something birds of prey were into, the Eastern Screech owl would be the chubby cheeked, gapped toothed cutie pie that would melt the judges’ hearts and steal the show. They are adorably diminutive and fluffy and are the most likely to incite pleas from small children begging for one as a pet. It is because of this common reaction that I often start any Scales & Tales program with the screech owl. There is no better opportunity to teach the difference between a pet and a wild animal and how to respect wildlife in their natural environments. The look of yearning quickly turns to shock on children’s (and some adults’) faces, as I relate that I have been bitten more times by this little owl than by any of the other birds at the aviary combined. Because underneath all that fuzz are a pair of quick feet equipped with needle like talons, an astute beak, and a keen mind bent on survival.

Adult Eastern Screech owls weigh about as much as a hot dog, without the bun. Carl Linnaeus gave them the scientific name, Otus asio, meaning little horned owl. Screech owls have ear tufts similar to that of Great Horned owls which are used for camouflage and communication. Eastern Screech owls also come in two different color phases – grey or reddish orange. Sometimes individual owls will be an intermediate chocolate brown color. The coloring is not sex-linked, determined by diet or region of habitation. Most likely coloring is influenced by genetic chance although data reveals that rufous owls are most common in the eastern portion of the U.S., while grey Eastern Screech owls may comprise as much as 85% of the population further west. The owls use behavior in addition to their coloring to hide from predators such as the Barred owl. The rufous ones have a talent for puffing out their feathers and perching closest to leaves as their coloring is amazingly like fall foliage. The mottled grey coloring looks just like tree bark and screech owls with this affect use it to their advantage by standing tall and skinny next to the trunk of a tree.

The Eastern Screech Owl is the most abundant owl in the eastern United States. Because of their small size and camouflage skills it is hard to know where screech owls are living, that is until they open their mouths! Screech owls do not actually screech but they are (considering their size) incredibly loud. Their call consists of two parts – a horse-like downward whiney and a rapid trill similar to a tree frog. Calls are used to communicate between family members, find potential mates, and to sound the alarm against intruders and predators. Eastern Screech owls occupy almost every possible habitat from city to swamp and do not discriminate between man-made structures or natural cavities. One may also be alerted to the presence of a screech owl after they have received a surprise bop on the head by a tiny feathered fury. I had park visitor relate to me once about her close encounter with screech owls in her garden in Cape May, New Jersey. She was happily bent over pulling weeds in her plant beds when she felt repeated strikes to her backside. Thinking it was neighborhood children or her husband up to no good she began to look around, only to catch her assailant approaching for a third time! It was screech owl who had set up shop in a large tree in the middle of her garden.

Screech owls eat a wide variety of prey items including insects, small rodents, and birds. This species’ lack of pickiness expands their niche and increases their chances of survival in a changing world. Unfortunately, the effects of development and littering greatly reduce those chances. Most of the Eastern Screech owls in the Scales & Tales program have been hit by cars. The impact of a vehicle often causes varying degrees of damage to an owl’s optic nerve, which connects to the back of the eye, leading to distorted vision or total blindness. Because screech owls are compact, like a softball, most of the harm is done internally. The grey phase screech owl at the Cunningham Falls State Park Aviary was hit by a car and is partially blind. Her cage mate, a red phase screech owl, flew into a glass window and now has lasting neurological issues. One way to reduce the risk of birds flying into windows and sliding glass doors is to place silhouettes or decals of birds on the glass so the wild birds realize that they can’t fly straight through. Decals can be handmade or purchased online at sites like .

The owls have adjusted well to captive life and are usually the stars of our educational programming. The red phase owl is prone to diva-like fits and will wait with a tense patience for warm water to be placed in her trough in the wintertime. As soon as the coast is clear, she jumps in resembling the Japanese snow monkeys that soak in steamy hot springs! Many of their wild brethren are around Cunningham Falls too. I hear and see them often in the lake area of the park in the summer as I’m cleaning up after the day’s festivities. Are they around more during this time because all the leftover garbage brings rodents and then the owls? I’m not sure. What I do know is that litter alters the landscape and its inhabitants in negative ways. Please keep public lands clean and safe for all by taking your trash with you. A positive action is kind of like a screech owl. It may be small or seem insignificant but can leave a lasting impact.

Read other articles by Ranger Jen Miller