The Great Outdoors


There’s a bird house on the trunk of a tree near our back door, a screech owl bird house. My son-in-law made it and put it there for me after I saw what I thought were screech owl droppings on the ground near the tree. Maybe they were screech owl droppings and maybe they weren’t; no screech owls have ever used the box.

A screech owl is about the length of a robin. But it’s not shaped like a robin. It’s thick bodied, chunky, and its head is much larger than a robin’s. It looks as if it has no neck and as if its head is one with its body. Its eyes are in the front of its head and are large and round and do not move; to look to the side a screech owl, like all owls, has to turn its head. Like a great horned owl the screech has feather tufts on its head that look like horns.

I saw screech owls in the trees of the neighborhood where I lived when I was a boy. A pair of screech owls moved into a hole flickers chiseled in the trunk of a tree in neighbor’s yard when the flickers and their fledglings left. The owls nested in the hole in the summer and roosted in the hole during the day when they weren’t nesting.

Screech owls are of two colors, red and gray, not a bright red like a cardinal, but darker. Bird books refer to these colors as red morph and gray morph. Both colors are light and streaked underneath. A pair may both be of the same morph or they may be one red and one gray and a brood may be mixed.

Screech owls do not screech. The best description of their call, I’ve read, is a quavering whinny.

Crows usually led me to a great horned owl. A crow would call loudly when it saw an owl, other crows would join the spotter and soon a mob of crows would be circling and diving at the owl. Whenever I heard crows calling I hurried to the spot, hoping to see, and often seeing a great horned owl. I saw robins harassing screech owls just like crows harassed great horned owls.

Both screech and great horned owls are birds of the night; hunters of the night. Both take their prey by ambush, perching, watching, then swooping down and making their kill with their feet and talons.

Screech owls feed on mice, small birds and large insects. Great horned owls feed on mice also, and rabbits and even cats. Great horned owls kill skunks and feed on them even when a skunk manages to spray the owl. I’ve read of people smelling skunk, looking for it, and finding a great horned owl feasting on a skunk. I’ve never done that but I’ve followed my nose to a skunk smell and found a stinky great horned owl.

Screech and great horned owls were the only owls I saw when I was a boy, except a mounted snowy owl on a cabinet in school. That was in northern Iowa. Now, in Indiana, I hear and see a barred owl occasionally. I’ve also seen live snowy owls and long-eared and short-eared owls and twice a saw-whet owl. When visiting in the Southwest I saw burrowing owls.

One owl I’ve looked for but never seen, the largest owl of North America, is the great gray owl.

Neil A. Case

Neil A. Case

I have always liked the outdoors and birds and am a conservationist and an environmentalist. I don't write specifically about conservation but mix my opinion in with stories about a bird, a mammal, a plant or other outdoor subject. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer