The eastern screen owl actually doesn’t screech very often. Its primary calls are a horse-like whinny and a long tremulous trill. The whinny is only about two seconds long and is used primarily to defend territories. The tremolo is a little longer than the whinny and is used by pairs or family groups to keep in touch with one another.
Virtually everyone in our region lives within earshot of an eastern screech owl. It’s the most common of the seven species of owls that breed in Pennsylvania.
But screech owls can be very hard to spot. No taller than a travel coffee mug, they are cryptic—which means they are very well camouflaged. Screech owls come in two colors: gray (or brownish-gray) and red (actually, orange-red, like a red fox). In our area, gray birds outnumber red birds by about three-to-one. Both color varieties can blend in surprisingly well with the bark and leaves of trees.
LISTEN: “Real Sounds of the Eastern Screech Owl”
But if they are spied by a small bird, like a chickadee, an avian alarm will be sounded. This can draw a noisy mob of many kinds of birds who join together to scold the owl, fluttering and anxiously and hopping all around it. This is because screech owls often will prey on birds. They begin their night of hunting at dusk and always keep an eye out for any unsuspecting bird—perhaps a cardinal lingering a little too long at the bird feeder, or a mourning dove flying into a pine tree to roost for the night. Swooping down silently, the owl can get its first meal of the night.
Eastern screech owls also hunt a great many small rodents, which makes them a good addition to anybody’s backyard. They are part of the natural balance in every landscape, from urban neighborhoods to extensive forests. In fact, few birds are as well-adapted to such a wide range of habitats as the rarely seen, sometimes heard, but almost always close-at-hand eastern screech owl.
So the next time you are outside and notice a lot of focused fussing and scolding by your neighborhood birds, try to locate the center of their attention and activity. That knot in the tree trunk or broken-off branch might just turn out to be an eastern screech owl.
Bird calls recorded by Hugh P. McIsaac and Wilbur L. Hershberger, courtesy the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.