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Creature Feature

A Famous Screech Owl 

By Wayne Bierbaum 

Recently, I saw a commercial on TV that showed a peaceful cabin in woods at night with a background soundtrack of soothing animal sounds. The most prominent sound was that of a screech owl making its classic monotonic trill. Not a scary scream or screech as the name implies. This reminded me of a now-famous owl on the Eastern Shore.  

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge, welcomes a large variety of animals. Even though eagles are the main draw to the refuge, recently a small owl has become the reason for an increase in visitors.

A reddish screech owl was first noticed sitting at the top of a hollow broken tree right next to the wildlife drive. In the morning, the owl would sit facing the sun, apparently to get warm. Unfortunately, during a wind storm in late December, the hollow tree fell over and started leaning on a pine tree. The owl was not seen for almost a week, but then was found again at the top of the now leaning hollow tree. It still sits in the sun but is not as easily seen. Hundreds of people have been coming by to visit and the bird seems to be quite tolerant of the attention. 

The screech owl is a very small nocturnal predator. They weigh about half a pound and are about 8 inches tall with a 20-inch wingspan. They are stocky and have ear tufts that help with camouflage.  They are very common but their excellent camouflage makes them almost impossible to find. This ability to hide in plain sight coupled with superb night vision makes them great hunters.  

When they are not hunting for mice and other small animals, they hang out in hollowed trees, a wooden duck box or a woodpecker den. They seem to prefer a cavity with an opening they can fill with their body. For a female owl, the cavity eventually becomes a nesting chamber. Three eggs are laid at the bottom of the cavity. The male feeds the female and then aids in feeding the hatchlings. When the owlets leave the chamber, they are fed by both parents for another two months. This period of time is likely how they came to be known as “screech” owls, as the fledged owlets calling for food at night can be unnerving to hear. 

There are two colorations of the screech owl, gray and red. The famous Blackwater owl is a red morph and is easier to see in the gray-barked oak. A gray morph would be quite difficult to see and, in fact, a gray screech owl sits in a woodpecker hole nearby and very few visitors have noticed it.  

If you do go to visit the owl, be quiet and move slowly. With the number of onlookers, its location is pretty obvious.