Wild Ideas: A mournful whinny haunts the night

I always wonder if whoever came up with the name “screech owl” ever actually heard its call. I think Roger Tory Peterson, in his “Eastern Birds” field guide, best describes this haunting sound — not a screech but rather “a mournful whinny, or wail; tremulous, descending in pitch.”

Sound courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s allaboutbirds.org, which has many more.

I also agree with Allan W. Eckert, who writes in “The Owls of North America” that the sound “falls pleasantly on the ear.” I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to identify this strange sound by people who don’t even realize it’s coming from a bird. The perplexed individual’s attempts to describe and recreate the sound can be a real hoot.

The eastern screech-owl, Virginia’s smallest owl, is famous for its whinnying call. Photo by Larry Sherertz.
The eastern screech-owl, Virginia’s smallest owl, is famous for its whinnying call. Photo by Larry Sherertz.

We’re taught as kids that owls say “who, who.” While some do hoot, including the barred owl (also known as the hoot owl), owls actually have a range of sounds among and within species. This is particularly true of screech owls, as Eckert points out: “No other group of owls in the world has more subtle differences and more nuances of vocal quality and delivery.”

After years of wrangling about how screech owls fit into bird taxonomy, scientists have decided that only two species are in the Otus genus: the eastern screech owl (Otus asio) and the western screech owl (Otus kennicottii). The best way to tell them apart is by their calls.

For someone who has never heard the eastern screech-owl’s whinny, it can be hard to believe it comes from such a small bird. Short and squat, this owl is the smallest “eared” owl (displaying ear tufts) in North America. Measuring a whopping six to 10 inches (with males smaller than females but with deeper voices), it is also the smallest owl native to Virginia.

Human fascination with owls seems to focus, so to speak, on their eyes. As Eckert puts it, “the eyes of the screech owl are quite large and penetrating.” Unlike most raptors, owls have their eyes on the front of their round faces. Each eye is surrounded by a circle of feathers, known as a facial disc, that the owl can adjust to direct sounds that come from varying distances into their ear cavities, which are asymmetrically placed, a trait common to many other species of owl. The eyes are stereoscopic, which gives owls a greater sense of depth perception, and are “firmly set in their sockets,” as Eckert puts it, so the screech owl has to turn its whole head to look around.

Owls’ ear and eye adaptations enable them to hunt in low light, which is handy for a nocturnal predator. However, they can’t see anything close well, so feathers once again come to the rescue. Those around their beaks and feet help owls feel around caught prey, much like the way cats, another nocturnal animal, use their whiskers to feel their way around in the dark, especially to see if they can fit through openings.

The serrated edge of an owl’s forewing is another huge aid in nocturnal hunting, disrupting the flow of air over the wing in flight, according to Stanford University. This eliminates the vortex noise created by airflow over a smooth surface.

Once you know the screech owl’s calls, it’s easy to identify them by sound. By sight can be a bit trickier, since the characteristic ear tufts are often missing on young screech owls and sometimes flattened on adults at rest. Their subtle coloring also generally blends in well with their surroundings. They can be mottled gray and red-brown, the latter being less common and peculiar only to this species of owl. Their size and location, usually low in a tree, is the biggest help in identifying them by sight.

Although quite common throughout Virginia in any place providing adequate tree cover, the eastern screech owl tends to stick to lower elevations. It hunts low to the ground for birds, mammals, insects, earthworms, crayfish, tadpoles, frogs and lizards. It’s even agile enough to occasionally prey on bats, and can be cannibalistic, according to All About Birds. When food is plentiful, the screech owl will sometimes cache some.

Like many owls, screeches nest in tree cavities, but will also take up residence in nest boxes. As All About Birds points out, they mate for life and are usually monogamous, but some males will mate with two different females. In such cases, “the second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.”

Screech owls seem quite tolerant of our presence near them. The first time I encountered one was in the morning, as I was walking through what had been a formal European-style garden, now neglected, on the farm where I lived. I looked around and found myself within a few yards of and at the same eye level as the tiniest owl I’d ever seen. It was well camouflaged on the branch on which it was sitting and showed little interest in my presence.

Owls have had a rich place in folklore and literature. As an article on the Owl Pages website put it: “Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death.”

In my experience, anyone who has actually seen a screech owl finds them adorable — “cute” is the word most often applied. I’ve even attended a party in honor of a brood that was about to fledge, all lined up on a branch where the human attendees could get a good look at them. The combined cuteness was overwhelming, especially after a glass (or two) of wine.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 283 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”