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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
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 OwlsClick thumbnail to view full-size
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
Books by Dr. Gehlbach
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
Screech Owl House You Can Buy
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!