Earlier this week, an Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) was calling in my backyard in the Sag Harbor/Noyac area. The mournful whinny call (like a horse on helium) started around 3 AM and lasted only a few minutes. Many of you may recall hearing these cries coming from adjacent woodlands near your home, perhaps frightened, and wondering if an opossum, raccoon, or fox was suffering some sort of agonizing pain. Most of you probably became frightened and covered-up under your bedsheets till the eerie cries went silent.
For me, it was an opportunity to jump out of bed, grab a flashlight and binoculars, and venture outside and observe these nocturnal night hunters up-close and personal.
Our resident year-round Eastern Screech-Owl, about the size of an American Robin or a pint-glass, can be found anywhere trees are located and is best detected by its sound. They are nocturnal hunters and spend the daylight hours roosting in cavity nesting sites, shrubs, or in dense cover in nearby woods.
During the breeding season, which is generally around mid-March to mid-May, they have an elaborate courtship ritual. Reproductively mature males approach females by calling from different branches until the female is interested and comes close. Once the female approaches, the male owl gets excited and begins to bob and swivel his head and even winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, the bobbing and swiveling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close and they touch bills and preen each other . . . Love at last!
Eastern Screech-Owls nest in holes and cavities most likely created by woodpeckers. They are not nest builders and lay their eggs on any debris at the bottom of the cavity hole. They have one brood a year and can have up to six young. When nesting, the female stays in the nest hole and relies on her mate to provide food to her and their chicks. They eat most kinds of small animals, including birds, bats, frogs, rats, moles, mice, insects, and rabbits. When the food is brought to the nest, it is the female who tears the prey into small bits for her babies.
After two months in the nest, the young leave but continue to depend on their parents for food for up to three months. As the young gain strength, they begin to separate and hunt apart from their parents and siblings. On a recent early morning bird count, from 5 to 7 AM, I counted 10 different screech owls living in my neighborhood. So, the next time you hear an eerie sound coming from your backyard, don’t be scared, it’s just our resident eastern-screech owl.
Frank Quevedo is the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum.