Last week, a small, grayish tufted screech owl found itself in big trouble. Softly gliding at dusk through a forested northern California neighborhood, the owl had his curious eye on a nearby chimney. Maybe it saw movement there, or maybe the chimney hole resembled the bird’s favorite roost, a dark cavity high in a tree. It landed, investigated, and then fell in. Trapped.
The owl survived there for five days until humans were able to lend it a helping hand. Rescuers from WildCare, an animal aid, advocacy, and education organization in the Bay area, took the dehydrated and exhausted flier back to their hospital, nourished and gently treated it for two days, sealed the chimney with a wire mesh cap, and gently returned the owl back into its home woods.
The creature that WildCare rescued is a Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii). A nocturnal predator, this fierce tiny bird eats almost everything it can catch, including rodents, small birds, frogs, and even insects. Perched in open woodlands, fields, or wetland edges, or even in the desert saguaro, this little guy will usually swallow small prey whole on the spot or transport larger prey in its bill, perch, and then tear it apart. (Western Screech Owl range map at right by Terry Sohl from sdakotabirds.com.)
The Audubon Society tells us that the male owl calls in a mellow, muted trill “hoo-hoo-hoo…,” or bouncing ball song, that speeds up at the end but maintains a constant pitch. A secondary song is a double trill of rapid bursts. Other calls are a soft “cr-r-oo-oo-oo-oo” as a greeting, and a sharp bark when the owl’s excited.
Says Deane Lewis, a native of Queensland, Australia, and the curator of OwlPages.com:
“During courtship males and females call to each other in a duet as they approach each other. When together they preen each other’s heads and nibble at the other’s beaks. The male then changes his call to a rapid tremolo, answered with a short, tremolo from the female.”
The owl is very aggressive when defending a nest, and it may even attack approaching humans. Not surprisingly, when the migratory swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, screech owls in Orange County enjoy a rather spectacular feast.