Eastern Screech Owl: A Master of Disguise In Burlington, Ontario
Bob and I could not believe our good fortune when we found a second Eastern Screech Owl on the same visit to Burlington, Ontario. This Eastern Screech Owl Grey Morph is quite different from the Red Morph Eastern Screech Owl we had just observed at a nearby Cemetery.
LaSalle Park is a 57-acre parcel of land situated on the shores of Lake Ontario. The morning that we arrived there, a light breeze was sweeping in over the water, but intermittent sunshine warmed the owl as it took advantage of the dwindling days of autumn.
As we walked the various woodland trails in search of the owl, it was a group of several birdwatchers clustered around the base of a tree that was a sure giveaway as to the location of the little grey owl. One photographer was playing a recorded soundtrack of a Screech Owl, which seemed needless given that this specimen was already visible and didn’t appear to be going anywhere. With the number of twigs and branches dangling in front of the Screech Owl’s nest hole, and leaves fluttering in the brisk breeze, photographing the owl was a bit of a challenge. One thing in our favour was the fact that this nest hole was only about 12 feet (3.5 m) from the ground.
Eastern Screech Owls come in two distinct color phases or morphs, red and grey. Across their range, about one-third of all Eastern Screech Owls are rufous coloured, these being more common in the East. The plumage of either colour phase is uniform with dark streaking on the body that helps them blend in with tree bark surrounding their nest hole or next to a perch.
With this little fella hunkered down in the tree cavity, it is impossible to appreciate its relatively large feet. At least the owl’s large “ear” tufts were obvious because they happened to be raised when I took the photos. If an Eastern Screech Owl flattens the ear tufts, the bird will take on a round-headed look.
Both Grey and Red Morph Eastern Screech Owls share the same range, but the colour of their plumage has them seeking out different species of trees in which to build their nests. The bark of hardwood trees provides remarkably effective camouflage for grey Screech Owls, whereas foxy-red Screech Owls find security in some pine trees, behind the coloured leaves of deciduous trees in autumn, or in old snags where the wood has become discoloured with age.
Eastern Screech Owls use similar locations for both roosting and nesting, those being naturally-occurring tree cavities or deserted woodpecker holes of an adequate size and suitable position. Their adaptability to urban areas also means that Screech Owls are content to roost on man-made structures and to frequently use nest boxes.
As this Screech Owl roosted in its nest hole, I wondered how it could possibly keep dry and warm inside a hole that opens to the sky. This owl descends from a long line of Screech Owls that have been nesting at LaSalle Park for about seven years, we were told, so the cavity is tried and true. I love that the owl’s facial disk is so clearly defined by a dark rim. It certainly personifies the owl’s wide-eyed and knowing countenance.
Part of the Latin name for Eastern Screech Owls, asio, which means Horned Owl, refers to the ear tufts that look like horns. Their English name pertains to a Screech Owl’s eerie vocalizations, none of which sound like screeches. Rather, their repertoire includes trills, whinnies, barks, hoots, rasps and chuckles. The Cherokee had their own name for these birds, wahuhi, a word that was meant to mimic the owls’ unearthly calls. Eastern Screech Owls, more than any other species of owl, have acquired a long list of alternate names, some of which I find quite endearing: Spirit Owl, Dusk Owl, Whickering Owl, Shivering Owl and Little Horned Owl, to name a few.
This Eastern Screech Owl, without a doubt, was totally aware of all the attention it was garnering. A steady stream of birdwatchers and photographers had appeared at the base of this tree over the course of the morning, according to some bystanders. One would think that the owl might feel threatened, but at no point did it behave that way.
When a Screech Owl is threatened, it will stretch its slender body and pull tight its feathers all in an effort to imitate the tree or a branch stub so as to avoid detection. If detected, a Screech Owl will simply fly away. The only disturbance that elicited a marked response while we looked on was a cacophonous Blue Jay that flew into the Screech Owl’s tree. The Grey Morph quickly and adroitly slithered down into its nest hole. That is when we took our leave.