It was a magical time in my backyard for two weeks this past summer. One August morning I walked out the back door just at dawn to meet a friend for a "beat the heat" walk, when suddenly two birds fluttered off the tops of feeder poles. They weren't exactly small birds, but they weren't very large, either.
"Owls!" was all I could conclude from that momentary glimpse. Since they were small, my first thought was of screech owls, and since they'd looked a bit rumpled, they struck me as fledglings, recently emerged from their nest hole, wherever it was.
Over the next two weeks the owlets, sometimes three of them, appeared several times, often dozing during the day in a hackberry tree, barely visible among the leaves. Several times I followed the commotion made by catbirds and cardinals, two species that were hyper-vigilant about the owls, to find one or two of the screeches in other trees.
One morning as I walked through the backyard a catbird flew in to perch on the arbor, screeching and screaming while staring at a honeysuckle shrub. "Oh, come on, catbird," I remember thinking, "a screech owl isn't going to be hiding in a bush." But just then a screech owlet flew out of the honeysuckle and landed in a nearby tree.
But after some two weeks of enjoying glimpses of the young owls, they moved off and weren't seen again.
One thing I love about the world of birds and bird-watching is the serendipity factor, how one thing often leads to another. About a week after I last saw the young screech owls, out of the blue came an e-mail from a woman in Florida — while doing online research on her own backyard screech owls she'd run across an older column of mine that mentioned this species.
"We had four fledglings this spring and summer and it was a treat to see them flying around," wrote Fran Kugel, who sent along a photo of two of the owlets. The Kugels knew they had an owl pair in the backyard areca palms, and then began noticing four youngsters flying from tree to tree at dusk as they preyed on the plentiful chameleon lizards. She couldn't catch a photograph of them, until one day when she was cleaning up palm fronds and had a feeling she was being watched.
"I looked up and there they sat, watching me intensely," Kugel said, noting that she captured them with her cellphone camera.
Screech owls are some of the most elusive owls and few of us ever get to see them. After all, they're superbly camouflaged and are usually active at night. I got to wondering how unusual it is to host backyard owls, as the Kugels and I had. The person who would know is Karla Bloem, head of the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn.
Screeches do nest in urban areas, Bloem says, as long as they have places to nest and hide. They prefer to stay hidden, since they are preyed upon by larger owls, and even cats.
"They are little generalists that eat anything that moves, as long as it is small enough, so they can live pretty much anywhere, including cities," she noted. Their diet includes insects, worms, birds, bats, small mammals, small snakes and whatever else is around. She added a caution against using insecticides outside or rodenticides inside for the safety of the owls. (Poisoned mice often move outside to find water.)
Somehow "my" backyard owls came in under the radar until the youngsters began flying freely — it's tough to hide three or four owlets in an urban lot. Fran Kugel didn't get a close look at her owls until she was cleaning out fallen palm branches.
Bloem says the parent owls should still be in the area even after the young birds departed. "This is the time of year the adults start singing again, so listen for what sounds like a little horse whinnying up in a tree," she advises.
As nights become longer, my ears are on high alert for horse-like sounds, and it would be wonderful if this led me to whatever tree holds their roost hole. I'll bet Fran Kugel feels the same.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hear screech owls here: allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/sounds.
Create a nest box
Screech owls are said to adapt readily to nest boxes. If you'd like to build one yourself, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch site for free plans and advice: https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/birds/eastern-screech-owl/.
Red or gray
Screech owls come in either red or gray, a variation similar to human hair color varieties. Red is the dominant gene, Karla Bloem says, but gray screeches do better in colder weather.