The Screech Owl on the Main Trail

October 30, 2015

Written by Thom Parrish

Alright, I'm excited to write about this next animal that is living wild in the preserve. This pint sized ghost of the woods has a lot of personality packed into a little bad ass ball of fluff. This entry is about the western screech owl! Megascops kennicotti. Aka: ghost owl, the cat owl, and little horned owl.

Every time I step onto the main trail that leads into the preserve I have made a habit of checking a particular hole in an oak tree just a stone's throw past the trail sign, looking for, hoping to see...an owl. It always struck me as being a classic storybook setting for a woodland owl to perch.

Tuesday morning while I was raking leaves in the Maidu Village, EYNC naturalist Melanie Duboce walked over and shared with me that a screech owl had been spotted in the cavity of an oak not far from the start of the main trail! We hurried over and sure enough there it was, sitting 20 feet up in the cavity of that oak, in that picturesque spot that was made just for an owl.

Megascops kennicotti; the name was given to honor the 19th century American naturalist and explorer, Robert Kennicott. Why it was given the common name of screech owl? I can only guess that whoever named it got their owl sounds mixed up. The western screech owl makes a series of short bouncing notes that accelerate in tempo, not screech like at all and a very cool and eerie sound to hear in the woods at night. (Melanie does a good western screech owl call. :) ) The appellations: ghost owl, cat owl, and little horned owl are very appropriate monikers for the screech. The first thing that struck me as I watched the little owl was how very much it reminded me of a little skinny cat. Unlike other small owls found in California such as the saw-whet, burrowing and elf owls, the screech owl has horns; tufts which gives it its more cat like expression of grumpiness and general disdain for everything that looks comically cute on a little owl. I think they also look like a little muppet with attitude. Not all people would find the screech owl as equally cute however. In the ancient traditions of The Nisenan People that called these woods home, these small, but ghostly nocturnal raptors were feared as omens of death.

The western screech owl is a species that loves open riparian woodland, making the American Parkway an ideal habitat. They are a fairly common owl species in California, their conservation status is currently listed as a species of least concern, LC. Their small size and supreme camouflage give them a near invisible presence in the woods they inhabit. Their bark patterned plumage contains heavy streaks of brown against natural cream white colored body feathers, making them appear as though part of the tree. When a screech owl feels there is danger present they will sometimes close their eyes and stretch their body out thin, giving them the uncanny appearance of a tree branch. Their big bright orange yellow eyes are often the most distinguishable feature that can give them away. Seemingly aware of this issue, screech owls will often peer through nearly closed squinted eyes for to remain inconspicuous. They forage at night, leaving their nest 20 or 30 minutes after sunset. I observed this particular owl leaving the tree's cavity to hunt on the nights of the 15th-17th, leaving at 7:42 pm, 7:51 pm, and 7:35 pm. Each time I observed the little owl fly out toward the meadow.

Screech owls are experts at catching insects on the wing, including moths and dragon flies. Chasing insect prey, screech owls will fly using quick erratic maneuvers, often being mistaken for bats by those who are lucky enough to catch a glimpse. Screeches will also prey on rodents, small reptiles, and sometimes prey even larger than themselves such as a cottontail. Predators of the screech may include great horned owls and hawks. Screech owls prefer to nest in tree cavities (often created by woodpeckers) that are at are at least a safe 15 feet above the ground. They are also known for using nest boxes when good nesting cavities are scarce. Typically an hour before going out to hunt the screech will scan a surrounding area from a perch overlooking an open wooded area. This makes the oak tree cavity by the main trail such an ideal location, it's the right height and it gives it a perfect view over the meadow. Being only 20 yards from the start of the trail and the nature center this location gets some of the most foot traffic by visitors to the preserve. While it would be wonderful for there to be such a cool and beautiful representation of the preserve's wildlife so accessible to the view of visitors, it remains to be seen if this will have an effect on whether the owl will continue using this spot for shelter. Starlings will also sometimes mob an unwanted screech owl out of a nest, but as of yet I have not observed any mobbing of this owl.

A typical life span for a screech in the wild is 7-10 years and 20 years in captivity. Typical of raptor birds, screech owls form monogamous mated pairs. A screech may accept a new partner in the prolonged absence of a mate. Breeding season typically begins early in Spring. Clutch sizes are typically 3-5 white eggs. Females usually will not hunt while on the nest, she and and the chicks depend on food foraged by the male during this time. An owlet born in the spring should be ready to leave the nest by fall. I have not noticed any other owls in this tree cavity, which makes me think this screech is alone. I also have not witnessed the screech bringing any food back to the tree. If I had to guess I would say that this screech was born sometime this past spring and is now looking for a nesting and hunting territory of its own. Maybe it is the offspring of the screech owl that has been known to inhabit one of the wood duck boxes by the nature study pond. It will be exciting to see if this screech owl continues to reside at this tree!