Volume 13, Issue 10 ~ March 10 - 16, 2005
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Sighting Screech Owls

If you take a walk through the woods and come across an agitated flock of little birds, stop. Look at the birds. Can you identify chickadees and titmice, wrens and kinglets? Are there other birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches? Listen. Are their sounds harsh and scolding? Do they concentrate around a particular spot, such as a tree cavity?

This is not the kind of experience you can expect every day, but it happens once in a while. It happened to me 15 years ago. The woods were quiet; I was deep in my thoughts. It was a gray and misty fall day, but it could have been any season.

As I walked, suddenly the birds made their presence known. All of the species mentioned above were there, and they were all agitated, noisy and oblivious to my presence. Their attentions were focused on the far side of a tree trunk, about 12 feet above the ground. The activity was a clue that the birds might have a predator in their midst.

I paused before slowly walking around the tree for a look. There was a hole in the tree where the birds had been focusing their attention. My movements were slow and deliberate but they broke the spell, and the little birds scattered. So I sat on a fallen log and took out my lunch, keeping my eye on the tree cavity.

In a few minutes, a screech owl face appeared in the cavity, staring out calmly like a bored cat. I ate my lunch and observed the little predator. When I had my fill of looking and eating, I left satisfied.

Because screech owls lay low during the day, they are easier to hear than see. The sound is a descending, throaty tremble like a horse whinny, often followed by a tremulous whistle.

Small as they are, a mere six ounces typically, screech owls dwarf the tiny southwestern elf owl, which weighs in at 1.6 ounces. Eastern screech owls are red or gray. The red variety is more common in our region; the one I watched that day was red.

The breeding season begins mid-March. Like other small owls, the screeches use large woodpecker holes and other tree cavities for nesting, roosting and caching food.

The model I used to for this drawing lives at Watkins Nature Center in Upper Marlboro, where she lives captive because of an eye injury. Watkins is home for other rehabilitated owls, hawks, kestrels and vultures as well as reptiles, amphibians and mammals. If you visit you can see them all, up close.

Don’t limit yourself to the birds in cages. As wonderful as they are, there are others right outside, to be discovered on your own.

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