Photo by Angus Inksetter
It was a brisk January evening at Sulphur Springs Conservation Area. Eight members of Saugeen Nature and 22 members of the public joined Angus Inksetter and John Reaume on a moonlight search for owls. Despite the cold (-160 C) at least two Screech Owls came to our calls, and answered for several minutes in return. Their high whinnying call, sounding very much like a horse, carried eerily through the moonlit woodlands.
These small birds are common across Grey and Bruce Counties. They can be found in almost every sizable woodlot and even in suburban and urban areas of small towns. They nest in natural tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes, or even nest boxes set 6 to 20 feet above ground. They are about 7 to 10” tall, and fit nicely in a wood-duck box.
Screech owls dine on insects, frogs, turtles, small snakes, mice, voles, small birds up to and including Blue Jays, Mourning Doves and Ruffed Grouse. They will even occasionally eat one of their fellow owls – the Saw-whet Owl, which is smaller than they are and which also lives in Bruce and Grey Counties.
Well-fed pairs will lay up to 8 eggs in the breeding season, which lasts from late March until May. The first egg is laid in April some time and the young take about 31 days to mature. The young in the wild suffer from about 70% mortality while an adult may survive for up to 10 years or more. Predators include mink, weasels, raccoons, feral cats, skunks, snakes, crows and Blue Jays. A common predator is the Great Horned Owl, and if you hear this owl in your woodland, then you can be sure you will not hear the Screech Owl.
Screech Owls come in three colour morphs. The most common in Grey and Bruce is the grey morph, but a red or rufous colour is also fairly common. The least frequently seen colour in this area is the brown morph that occurs in about 3% of the local population. It is very difficult to spot these small owls because their mottled colours blend so well with their perches in the daytime – the greys in hardwood bush and the reds among the conifers and in the fall.
But whenever you are near a woodland in the evening, or in a well-treed section of your local town, listen carefully and sometime you may hear the high whinnying call of the Screech Owl.
Saugeen Nature holds an annual Owl Prowl and members of the public are welcome to attend. In March we go on an annual birding outing to look for Snowy Owls and other raptors in the fields and along streams in Bruce County.