The Eastern Screech Owl is at heart a very lazy hunter. Why sweat the big stuff when then world is filled with big juicy cockroaches and crickets. Life is so easy most of the year that when Houston experiences bitterly cold weather, the Screech Owls suffer as all of their prey scurry to hide in warmer cracks and crevices. During these stretches of cold weather the Wildlife Center receives unusually large numbers of adults in emaciated condition. We have had Screech Owls brought to us by car, bicycle, bus, police car, train (a track runs close to the Wildlife Center) and now by ambulance. The off-duty EMS team noticed the tiny bird on the side of the street. They wrapped it in a warming blanket and brought it to the Wildlife Center. It had suffered a head injury and was very emaciated. Prognosis is good.
The Eastern Screech Owl is one of the smallest owls in the United States. Fully grown adults stand about 8 inches tall and are often mistaken for baby Great Horned Owl. As with most owls, the female is larger than the male. They come in 2 color morphs (types) gray and rufus (red). The color isn’t based on sex, location or diet. Sometimes a gray morph will pair bond with a red morph. These little owls rely on camouflage (feather color and pattern blend into the surroundings) to escape detection. The gray Screeches tend to hang out in hardwood trees like oak and the rufus tend to hang out in evergreen trees like pine and cedar. When they feel threatened they stand as tall and skinny as possible so they look like a broken of limb instead of a bird.
The Eastern Screech Owl eats large insects, lizards, small snakes, geckos and small mice. While they prefer open spaces surrounded by light woods or the trees along creeks, they are very adaptable and are found just about everywhere in Texas – even in highly urban locations like downtown Houston and Dallas. They are considered to be “residents” because they stay in the same area all year round and do not migrate. The needs of Screech Owls are pretty easy to meet; a few small trees and lots of juicy big cockroaches.
The Eastern Screech Owl is found in the eastern half of the United States. These small owls are not found in the Western mountains. The Western Screech Owl is found along the California coast.
The Eastern Screech Owl is considered solitary, but pair bond to raise their babies. During the early spring, the male will build a nest in a tree cavity or refurbish an existing nest. The female selects a mate by how good his nest is and they quality of the food stashed waiting for her. The pair will co-parent, but only the female will incubate the eggs. The male will bring his mate food while she is sitting on the eggs. Once the babies hatch, both parents will feed the chicks. Babies that need the parents to feed them at first are called altricial (which means “needs nourishment”. The babies are covered by the most soft, fluffy white downy feathers that you can imagine. Fledglings (babies that have moved out of the nest, but still need to be fed) and branchlings (babies that are learning to fly by fluttering from one branch to another) maintain this “poofy” appearance as their adult feathers come in. The female will lay many eggs, but usually only one or two chicks will make it to adulthood.
By the end of summer, the babies have fledged (flying on their own and self-feeding) and while the parents may stay near to protect the youngster from trouble, the baby is basically all grown up. Come spring the baby will be looking for a mate to raise their own family with.