Screech owl love

An extended version of this morning’s “Porch.”

At dawn, amid the creaking of trees in the wind, I hear the wavering cry of a screech owl down in the pines. Half a minute later, the male answers: a lower-pitched call from up in the woods. They duet for a couple of minutes, trill-calls intermixed with their trademark descending whinnies.

The temperature is just around freezing, and the air smells of rain. I catch a glimpse of movement off to the left — can they really be that close? — and then there they are, two small, winged silhouettes fluttering through the trees. They connect in mid-air for barely a second, then land in adjacent treetops opposite the porch. They sit ruffling their feathers for about a minute, silent now. Then one at a time they fly off toward the powerline, their wings soundless as always. A gray squirrel begins to scold — softly, as if still half-asleep, or else trying to duet with the nearest tree, creaking in the dawn wind.

I sit clutching my empty coffee mug, thinking that perhaps a one-second mating is the perfect observation for a 140-character Twitter tweet — and realizing at the same time that a bare-bones account just won’t satisfy.

There’s a lot to the courtship of eastern screech owls that I didn’t witness, judging from the description on the Owl Pages (a good site, aside from the incredibly annoying pop-up link-ads).

Breeding season for Eastern Screech Owls is generally around mid April, but may range from mid March to mid May. [Ha!] They have an elaborate courtship ritual. Males approach females, calling from different branches until they are close. The male then bobs and swivels his head, bobs his entire body, and even slowly winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, bobbing and swivelling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close and they touch bills and preen each other. Pairs mate for life but will accept a new mate if the previous mate disappears. Gray and red colour phases will mate together.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives a slightly more nuanced account of their mating practices:

Eastern Screech-Owl pairs usually are monogamous and remain together for life. Some males, however, will mate with two different females. The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.

As with most birds, the male lacks any penis whatsoever. Male and female openings are outwardly identical, and the consummation of all that mutual preening tends to be as brief, and seemingly about as passionate, as a peck on the cheek. Homosexual pair bonding has been observed among barn owls, and there’s no reason to doubt that it occurs among screech owls, too: nature loves infinite variety, even if some humans don’t. (See here for sad proof of the latter.)

Happy belated Valentine’s Day, y’all. Thanks for reading.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

9 Comments


  1. Ah, now this I can relate to directly. After 3 or 4 years of being fascinated by accounts of flora & fauna that, in terms of their distance from my cosy little piece of English rurality, might have come from a David Attenborough nature fest, the humble screech owl is a familiar neighbour. It’s strangely comforting to know that we share an experience of the wild world!

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  2. Uh, not quite, Dick. The eastern screech owl, Otus asio (not to be confused with the long-eared owl, Asio otus), is a North American species. I see that you do have another member of the genus, though: Otus scops. That bird, however, is supposed to be pretty rare, so I’m wondering if you aren’t thinking of the barn owl instead? Tyto alba is truly worldwide in its distribution.

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  3. The last line in that article sums it up nicely: I love the smell of irrationality in the morning.

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  4. Bollocks. In that case we’ve got a barn owl that screeches. Ideas above its station, maybe…

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  5. I love it that he winks slowly at her!

    That penguin story was great, but I couldn’t believe that geat long discussion thread after it. Don’t these people have anything better to do?

    Some friends had a dominant cockerel wandering about, with two devoted, what looked like, hens following him about. It turned out these were his sons, who, though well past the age when most cockerels would be exhibiting cockerelish behaviour and appearance, were keeping their heads down and looking and acting like hens so as to keep the peace.

    Barn owls don’t really screech that much, do they?

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  6. M-L – Indeed.

    Dick – I understand they make all kinds of uncanny noises. You’ll have to take that up with Lucy, though – I don’t have any experience with them. We’ve never had one up here.

    Lucy – I have that reaction every time I visit one of the more popular blogs. A lot of blogs in that ScienceBlogs network are trying to ape P.Z. Myers’ success, from what I can tell, and courting controversy by writing as often as they can about religion and politics. The snarkier they can be, the more the internet masses applaud. That’s OK, I guess, except that there is a lot of great science and nature blogging going on elsewhere, and it’s a shame more people don’t know about it. Kind of the way everyone assumes that poetry bloggers are all like Ron Silliman.

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  7. Lucy says: “Barn owls don’t really screech that much, do they?”

    Lewis Wayne Walker in “The Book of Owls” (1974) makes the comment, after spending 96 days monitoring a Barn Owl family, that the Barn Owl is the true screecher of the owl world and the little owl that trills and whinnies should be given a more appropriate name – giving up its “nom de plume” to Tyto alba.

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  8. Thanks, Ben. That was kind of my impression, but as i said I haven’t had any direct experience with them.

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