Eastern Screech Owl Facts and Video

Baby Owl Banding

My husband, my three girls and I were invited by Dr. Fred Gehlbach, an Emeritus Professor of the Biology Department at Baylor University, and the world authority on screech owls, to participate in a baby screech owl banding. Dr. Gehlbach has researched the owls in the Central Texas area for many years and has many boxes stationed in the area for the owls to nest in. Every spring, he opens the boxes and takes out the baby owls to put an identifying band on their leg so that they can be tracked and their locations and movements pinpointed for study.

Father Screech Owl

Adult Male Eastern Screech Owl in tree. The father was hidden in the leaves of the tree about 15-20 feet from the nest.  He sleeps there while the female incubates the eggs and helps her feed the babies once they hatch.
Adult Male Eastern Screech Owl in tree. The father was hidden in the leaves of the tree about 15-20 feet from the nest. He sleeps there while the female incubates the eggs and helps her feed the babies once they hatch. | Source

When Owls are Banded

We arrived at four when the light was still up and the owls would still be asleep. My husband and daughters had gotten to attend a screech owl banding last year, but this was my first opportunity. I was very surprised to have them point out to me the father owl sleeping on a branch a few feet away from the babies. It was late afternoon, and apparently, the father sleeps there all day. He was hidden in the branches and I would not have seen him if they had not pointed him out.

Our Experience Banding Baby Owls

How Owls are Banded

As the video shows, Dr. Gehlbach held the baby screech owls one by one as he attached a numbered tag to each one's leg with a clamp. The tags are documented through the Department of Wildlife and will help Dr. Gehlbach and others track and research the birds throughout their lives. Although the metal bands are put on securely, they are loose enough to not bind the bird's legs as they grow.

Owl Banding Experience

There were four baby owls in the box we had the chance to see, and they were bigger than I had expected. The homeowners said they had been peeking out of the box, and Dr. Gehlbach said that was a sign they were ready to leave the nest soon. They were wide awake as he pulled them up and put them gently in a paper sack. I expected them to squawk, but they actually made clicking noises most of the time, or else were silent.

Unfortunately, the homeowners where the box was placed said they had found the mother owl dead. They were not sure what had killed her. However, the father owl had continued to feed the babies, even though we imagined that feeding four large birds and himself every night must be quite a challenge.

Baby Screech Owls

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Baby Owlets. The owlets clicked at us but mostly sat calmly in our hands as we held them and stroked their feathers.Holding Baby Screech Owl. Look at those wonderful eyes!  They clutched at a pencil with their talons, which kept them from scratching up.Banding Rings. The ands went securely but loosely on their feet and allow scientists to study the movements of the birds throughout their lives.Baby Screech Owls in bag. This was a large nest of owlets for the father to feed.Handling Baby Owls. They didn't seem to mind being passed from one person to another.
Baby Owlets. The owlets clicked at us but mostly sat calmly in our hands as we held them and stroked their feathers.
Baby Owlets. The owlets clicked at us but mostly sat calmly in our hands as we held them and stroked their feathers. | Source
Holding Baby Screech Owl. Look at those wonderful eyes!  They clutched at a pencil with their talons, which kept them from scratching up.
Holding Baby Screech Owl. Look at those wonderful eyes! They clutched at a pencil with their talons, which kept them from scratching up. | Source
Banding Rings. The ands went securely but loosely on their feet and allow scientists to study the movements of the birds throughout their lives.
Banding Rings. The ands went securely but loosely on their feet and allow scientists to study the movements of the birds throughout their lives. | Source
Baby Screech Owls in bag. This was a large nest of owlets for the father to feed.
Baby Screech Owls in bag. This was a large nest of owlets for the father to feed. | Source
Handling Baby Owls. They didn't seem to mind being passed from one person to another.
Handling Baby Owls. They didn't seem to mind being passed from one person to another. | Source

What are Eastern Sceech Owls Like?

Screech Owls are a very small owl, only 8-10 inches in height. They are generally a mottled grey color which helps them to blend in with the trees that they perch in during the day. However, they can range in color from grey to red. There are two varieties of Screech Owls in the United States, Eastern, and Western. The type we banded were Eastern Screech Owls.

Eastern Screech Owl call

What do They Eat?

One of the reasons Eastern Screech Owls are successful is that they are not picky eaters. They are remarkable predators who eat a variety of insects, small mammals, reptiles and even small birds. In fact, one of the birds they frequently eat is the cardinal, which is still up and active when they start hunting at twilight, and then is also one of the first birds awake and moving around when the owls are returning at dawn from their nightly hunt. They even can pick birds off of their roosting spot on a branch. However, Dr. Gehlbach's research shows that Eastern Screech Owls don't have a negative impact on species in their range, which is generally 10 acres during the summer and 20 acres during the winter season.

Baby falls out of nest

Successful Adaptation to Human Habitats

These owls have been very successful in living in suburban neighborhoods. Over the 43 years, Dr. Gehlbach has studied them (the longest-running study of any bird) the area of Central Texas has gone from being rural to suburban, and the owls have done very well with the change, adapting nicely to box nests put up by humans when the naturally hollowed out trees were cut down. Actually, Dr. Gehlbach has found that currently the owls in suburban areas do better than those in the wild in Central Texas because they have more food, more water, and fewer enemies to worry about.

The Central Texas Area of Dr. Gelbach's Owl Studies

Screech Owls and Blind Snakes: an Unusual Relationship

Generally, for most bird boxes, the policy is to clean them out yearly. However, the screech owls have their own system to clean out their boxes. According to research done by Dr. Gehlbach, and reported in Audubon magazine by Kenn Kaufmann in 2002, screech owls have an interesting relationship with blind snakes. They take these snakes, which look like large earthworms, into their nests. Dr. Gehlbach speculates that they probably bring them as food for their babies, but these snakes have skin that is rather slimy and slippery. It seems that the snakes often slip away from the owl babies and burrow into the mass of rotting debris in the nest.

While at the bottom of the nest, the snakes eat the fly and ant larva which are feeding on the leftover baby owl food. For example, the snakes might eat bits of mice bones and beetles. Amazingly, the nests where the blind snakes clean out the rotting material have healthier owlets and more of them fledge out of the nest successfully. Dr. Gehlbach calls this relationship "mutualism." Eventually, when the owlets leave the nest, the snake gets out and goes back to its normal underground life.

We see these snakes regularly in our backyard. They are about the size of a pencil in thickness and length. They vary in color from brown to silver, like the one I've pictured here. They mostly live in the soil and only come out to feed or when it rains and they are flooded out. However, I had never heard of this symbiotic relationship between the Texas blind snakes and screech owls.

Texas Blind Snake

This is a Texas blind snake which sometimes slips away from the hungry baby owls and lives on the debrie in the nest, cleaning it out and making the chicks healthier.  Texas Blind snakes are about the size of a pencil.
This is a Texas blind snake which sometimes slips away from the hungry baby owls and lives on the debrie in the nest, cleaning it out and making the chicks healthier. Texas Blind snakes are about the size of a pencil. | Source

Nesting Boxes

Although rarely noticed by humans because they are awake at night, screech owls are not afraid of living in areas where there are people. However, they have trouble finding nesting sites even in neighborhoods where there are plenty of Oak and other trees that they like. That is because screech owls normally nest in the hollows of dead trees which humans cut down.

Through his research, Dr. Gehlbach developed the ideal screech owl nest, a box about 8 inches square and 10 inches deep. The box needs to be 12 to 20 feet from the ground for the owls to be comfortable with it. See the video for instructions. If you aren't handy, you can also buy a pre-made owl box from Amazon.

Do you have an owl box or owls in your neighborhood? I'd love to have you share your owl experiences in the comments!

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Comments 16 comments

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 6 months ago from United States Author

Wow Phyllis--that is really interesting. It might be the mother and father owl. It was very sad that the owls that we banded only had a dad left. The mom had evidently gotten killed. So both parents tend to the young.


Phyllis Dunavent 6 months ago

We have had screech owls for years roosting on our tangerine tree. This year we put up an owl nest box. Someone is in there, but we are not sure who or how many. This season I have seen 2 different owls there, one bigger and fatter and one smaller and skinnier. If you want to see pictures, let us know.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 18 months ago from United States Author

Myra--I'm sorry that your owl pair has left. My guess is that they might have chosen to nest elsewhere. If there are eggs, you might want to have the box cleaned out so that another pair will nest later. Sorry I am not able to help more.


MyraHoward 18 months ago

I had a male & female for months here in Georgetown until it started to rain

night and day. Now they are gone.They left in May. I am new at this so I don't know what happened. I can't reach my owl house it to high. Should I get another one? I'm pretty sure their were eggs. I wouldn't think the female would leave the nest. Any ideas would help. Thanks


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 2 years ago from United States Author

Rick--I'm glad to hear you've got a Screech owl nearby. We hear both Screech Owls and Barred owls in our neighborhood and occasionally see one when we are walking at night.


Rick Steffey 2 years ago

Have been hearing a Screech owl here lately at dusk.Could not identify it at first had to look it up,been here 10 years first time I heard one here.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 2 years ago from United States Author

Blaria--thanks so much for sharing your story! I've had encounters with baby birds too and often found that the parents were actually nearby. I bet this owl mom was trying to get the baby to fly. These babies are absolutely adorable--I am so glad to know that they have adapted so well to living in suburban neighborhoods.


Blaria 2 years ago

Just found a baby screech owl outside my work yesterday morning sitting in a small pile of mulch. My co-workers and I watched for mama owl all day and didn't see her. At 5:00 pm upon closing the office, I thought that baby owl was probably abandoned. So I decided to put him in a box and take him to our local wildlife sanctuary in Palm Beach County. No sooner had I placed the baby owl in the box than I saw mama owl fly out from the drain pipe on our roof and start calling out to her baby. The baby immediately started to answer back. I took the baby out of the box and placed him back where he had been all day. I stepped away back into the office for about 15 minutes and when I returned, the baby was gone. I did see mama owl in the drain pipe again today, but no sign of baby owl. I have to say the baby owl was absolutely adorable !


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 3 years ago from United States Author

Hi Paul! Thanks for sharing your story. It would be great to have you post your pictures and your plans on a blog or HubPages. If you don't want to do this yourself but want to send them to me, I'd be happy to post those for you giving you credit. Just contact me through HubPages.


Paul Johnson 3 years ago

Some years ago our neighbor put an owl home in a tree and an owl quickly moved in. I am a carpenter so I drew up plans for a owl home which I gave to another neighbor's kids and told them to bring it back over the Christmas break and we would build the home together. Which we did. A few day later I had a 4 year old on my door step jumping up and down saying "We have owl, we have owl." Sure enough there was an owl roosting in the home. I built one for our house and put it in a Cedar in our back yard. A few days later I looked out and there was an owl roosting in the home. Three owl homes within 200 yards of each other with owls. We all thought it was one owl moving between the three homes until one day there were owls in all three homes at the same time.

Since then I have built and sold a lot of owl homes in the northwest section of Austin. The vast majority have been occupied. Last year was the first year we have had a breeding pair. Last Mother's Day there were four chicks!!!

For two seasons we had the Red Morph version...

I do not know how to post images but have some great pictures of the owls that live in our back yard...


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

Simply an amazing hub! I loved every bit of it and your video has given me a smile that's going to follow me throughout my day. :)

Right now I'm thinking two things: "Who knew?" and "We need a screech owl nesting box or two."

Seeing the children interact with the owls is treasure to watch--Bravo Professor Gehlbach--and seeing the wind blow the feathers of the young owl in that closeup was thoroughly delightful.

Thanks for an enjoyable and informative post! I expect this will be highlighted many times over by readers, including by me.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Lori--that is so much fun. It probably is a screech owl. They have done very well in Central Texas. If you are interested, you can build an owl house fairly easily or buy one. They won't be nesting now, but they will be looking for a nest in the spring and having an owl house can draw them to stay in your yard!


Lori W. 4 years ago

Thank you so much for this site. My family lives in Georgetown, TX and we have recently discovered an owl that is perched in a tree right outside our kitchen window. It has been fascinating and just beautiful to watch-- sleeping all day, and i caught it taking off at dust for the first time today. Awesome! After watching this video and reading this, I think it might be a screech owl. Thank you so much for your information.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much! This was such a great experience that I wanted to share it with other kids too.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

I'm so glad your kids enjoyed it! Thanks for letting me know!


dalton71482 profile image

dalton71482 4 years ago from Tennessee

very cool informative hub. my kids really enjoyed the photos. voted up

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    VirginiaLynne profile image

    Virginia Kearney (VirginiaLynne)1,250 Followers
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    VirginiaLynne is an educator and mom of 5. Her Science Fair articles are based on her experience helping her children do their projects.



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