Eastern screech owls are distributed widely from southern Canada, across the entire eastern United States, and into northern Mexico. They are found in almost all types of woodland habitat, including forest, river valley, swamp, and urban and suburban parks and gardens.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore features an eastern screech owl among its Animal Ambassadors that are introduced to audiences in education programs on and off grounds.
These small owls are opportunistic feeders that survive well in many different places so long as there are trees or some equivalent available. They nest and take shelter in tree cavities, and perch in trees to watch for prey.
Eastern screech owls are sit-and-wait hunters that swoop down silently on their next meal from low-lying branches. They usually hunt in the dim light of dusk and dawn, or at night. They eat many kinds of prey, ranging from insects and earthworms to songbirds and small rodents. After eating, screech owls (like other owls) expel small pellets of indigestible prey parts: bones, fur, feathers, and even teeth. The average screech owl regurgitates two to four pellets per day.
Eastern screech owls do indeed screech but are more readily recognized for their trilling and whinnying calls. This bird’s most common call is a hushed trill that lasts two to three seconds. The courting call is more of a whinny. When guarding young in the nest, females may bark or hoot. Baby screech owls peep during their first few weeks and start to chatter and hum as they get older and bigger. When begging for food, fledglings – juveniles that have left the nest – screech.
Eastern screech owls court and breed in late winter and early spring. In order to attract a female, a male eastern screech owl performs a unique courtship “dance.” He flies from branch to branch, slowly approaching his prospective mate, calling all the while. Once near enough, he begins to bob and swivel his head, bob his body, and wink at her slowly with one eye. If she is adequately impressed and accepts him, she will move close, touch his bill, and the two will begin to preen each other. Their courtship is then complete. Once paired, eastern screech owls are generally monogamous and mate for life.
Pairs nest in tree hollows or cavities, and are also fairly accepting of nest boxes. Females lay clutches of two to six eggs in early spring and incubate the eggs for about 26 days. After hatching, chicks are covered in white down and their eyes are sealed shut. The female will brood them (i.e. keep them safe and warm) while the male provides food. The female will tear his offerings into small pieces that the chicks can digest. Chicks will fledge – i.e. leave the nest and start to fly – after about four weeks, but will remain dependent on their parents for food for another five to six weeks.
Many larger owls hunt eastern screech owls, including great horned owls and barred owls. Predators from the ground include mink, weasel, raccoon, skunk, and some snakes. A screech owl is well camouflaged against the backdrop of a tree and, when threatened, will press its wings close to its body and sit upright to resemble the stub of a branch. If camouflage fails, a screech owl’s next best defense is flight.
The eastern screech owl is widespread and common throughout its range.