Species profile: Eastern Screech-Owl - split personality
Experiencing the Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle of the Eastern Screech-Owl
Published: September 1, 1995
|With my camera hanging around my neck, I waited anxiously as Stiles Thomas, the marsh warden of the Allendale Celery Farm, opened the Wood Duck box. It was winter and Thomas was taking advantage of the frozen marsh to do some house cleaning. I was along to document the ritual and had high hopes of photographing an Eastern Screech-Owl that had been using a box for its roost. Screech-owls are nocturnal and rarely become active before sunset, so few birders get the opportunity to see them up close, especially under a glaring winter sun.|
"Is it there?" I asked. Thomas nodded and descended the ladder so I could climb up and have a look. Lying in the bottom of the box, prone like a Whip-poor-will, the owl had its eyes closed, head tucked into a corner, and seemed in a deep sleep. Since I had recently begun studying the daytime behavior of screech-owls and had spent many hours watching them sleep in the box openings, I suppose I had secretly hoped to encounter a bill-snapping, wide-eyed monster instead of this benign pile of feathers. I have seen them referred to in print as "feathered wildcat" and "ferocious," but so far had only witnessed the docile side of their nature. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Eastern Screech-Owl has a dual personality.
While Thomas cleaned out some old unhatched duck eggs and debris from the box, another member of our team held the owl. To immobilize its powerful feet and razor sharp talons, he wrapped his gloved fingers around the owl's tarsi. Barely larger than the glove that held it, the owl was cryptically patterned with black, gray, and white lines resembling the furrows in the bark of a tree. With its ear tufts erect, its bill concealed by prominent feathers and rictal bristles, and its eyelids tightly closed as if squinting, it had a friendly, cat-like demeanor. It could have been someone's pet. In fact, John James Audubon kept one in his coat pocket on a trip from Philadelphia to New York, traveling alternately by water and by land. He wrote that the bird "remained generally quiet, fed from the hand, and never attempted to escape."
Our owl also made no attempt to escape. By spreading its wing, we could examine the feathered fringes on the leading edges of the first two primaries that silence the owl's nightly prowls. Still, the owl remained docile, as if in a trance.
Later, I asked a local rehabilitator, Giselle Smisko, if this was typical screech-owl behavior. Smisko has rehabilitated many injured screeches, and has observed that when they are handled or feel trapped, their usual response is "sleep." She believes this trance-like behavior prevents them from becoming overly stressed. Given an opportunity to escape, however, "they can spring awake instantly," Smisko volunteered. We gave our owl no opportunity to escape. According to ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, screech-owls are slow fliers due to heavy wing loading. If this owl had escaped across the marsh, it could have succumbed to attacks from Common Crows, Ring-billed Gulls, Blue Jays, and any of a variety of raptors that could be lurking in the surrounding woods. The owl was carefully returned to its roost box and the box opening momentarily plugged with a glove in case the owl became agitated.
Common across two-thirds of the United States the Eastern Screech-Owl is doing surprisingly well in my state of New Jersey in spite of a dense human population. This state produced almost two and one-half screeches per owling mile on the combined Christmas Counts of 1990, 1991, and 1992. Part of the reason for the abundance is the success of their Jekyll and Hyde disposition. During the day, they melt into the background by becoming part of the trees. But at night, their Mr. Hyde personality takes over, and they are transformed into tenacious, fearless, and omnivorous predators. Anything from ants to ducks becomes fair game.
Screech-owls will pursue moths like a nighthawk, fluttering around floodlights and snapping up the insects with their bills. Grasshoppers and beetles are devoured with relish, and screech-owls have no problem wading into small ponds like a heron after frogs, crayfish, and other aquatic tidbits, or fishing like an Osprey. One owl was reported in A.C. Bent's Life Histories to have caught 16 horned pout from a fishing hole in the ice, and then to have flown a total of 32 miles to deliver each one to its roosting hole. According to studies in Michigan by John and Frank Craighead in 1942 and 1948, Eastern Screech-Owls consumed meadow mice and white-footed mice almost exclusively in winter when the rodents were abundant. But when the meadow mouse numbers declined in 1948, they turned to small birds. Large birds, like Ruffed Grouse, also figure in their diets, although it's difficult to imagine this small owl subduing a bird over twice its size in length and weight. It has been said that whatever screech-owls can kill, they'll eat.
Their success may also be related to an innate fearlessness. An amusing account is told by Bent of the owl who fell down a chimney in Mendham, New Jersey, and ate the pet canary. "Feathers showed that the canary had been pulled through the bars of the cage." Any other respectable bird would have been more concerned with escape than filling its belly at such a moment. Allan W. Eckert, author of The Owls of North America (Weathervane Books, 1978), tells the story of a pair of owls in a Chicago suburb that stole newly emerging silk moths from a box bolted to a windowsill, snatching one right out of a human hand. Even after the box was taken inside and the window closed, one determined owl nearly broke the window.
Screech-owls, unfortunately, have a habit of hunting open areas in woodlands and forests, areas often created by roads and highways. Many, especially juveniles, are hit by cars. Some that survive the impact are brought to rehabilitators. Smisko tells an amazing story of an Eastern Screech-Owl she treated at her Avian Wildlife Center in Wantage, New Jersey. It had been hit by a car one evening in northern New Jersey. The driver stopped, got out of the car to look for the bird, could not find it, and, believing it must have escaped injury, drove home. The next morning, he commuted to his job in New York state. He drove home late that afternoon, and as he pulled into his driveway, a wing appeared over the hood of his car. He was astounded to find the screech-owl stuck headfirst in the car's grill, and, what's more, that it was still alive. With the aid of a crowbar, he released the bird and brought it to Smisko. After its long, arduous ordeal, the six-ounce owl was traumatized but suffered no fractures. One eye was slightly injured, but did not seem to jeopardize its hunting ability. Three weeks later, the owl was released into the wild. Such tenacity and resilience is worthy of lions and legends.
Four years ago I installed a screech-owl box in my backyard, and a gray-morph female occupied it on and off during the winter. I could watch the box from almost all of my back windows, but saw only her Dr. Jekyll personality. She remained part of the woodland background as the day unfolded around her. The local songbirds caught her out sunbathing in the box opening one day, and she stoically slept while juncos and nuthatches protested on her roof and chickadees and titmice flew around her face.
A gray squirrel often sat on her box. One afternoon while the owl was sleeping in the opening, the squirrel consumed an acorn on her roof, groomed itself, then leaned over the edge and studied the owl. As if to think about things, the squirrel sat back for a few moments, and then it did the most peculiar thing. It leaned down from the roof, reached out a paw and touched the owl's head. The squirrel seemed satisfied that she was real and soon left the tree. The owl never moved or opened her eyes; she seemed not there at all.
Ignorant at this time of the screech-owl's ability to switch from its cryptic Dr. Jekyll disguise to an aggressive Mr. Hyde in seconds, I was startled to see the owl transform before my eyes one January afternoon. It was 16 degrees outside, and birds had been mobbing my feeders all day, so it was not unexpected that they lured in a hungry Sharp-shinned Hawk. With its long, slender golden feet, the small accipiter snared a starling. For the next 40 minutes, I recorded its behavior while it dined beneath my feeders. For 10 minutes the hawk pulled out feathers and released them to the wind, occasionally tossing its head to loosen those that stubbornly clung to its hooked bill. I was surprised to see it swallow two billfulls of feathers before it actually began to feed. The hawk ate, standing on its meal the entire time, as if it were on guard. Each time it tore off a bite, its tail popped up, and then, like a Hermit Thrush tail, drifted lazily down again. I was so absorbed in the hawk's behavior that I was startled for a moment by the owl peering out from the back of her box as if she didn't want to be seen, understandable behavior for a bird on the menus of many common hawks and owls. The owl box, located 50 feet behind my feeders, offered a clear view of the Sharpie. Almost immediately, the owl disappeared.
When the hawk was satiated, it flew up into a tree and cleaned its bill, wiping first one side and then the other on a branch. Then it shook out its feathers and turned to face my house. As if aware that the Sharpie's back was turned, the owl again materialized in the back of her box, then ducked out of sight. Moments later, when the hawk flew over the roof of my house, the owl thrust her head out of her box with such force, her body almost followed. With eyes alert, she stared directly at the feeders. This was not like her at all. Normally, it took her 30 minutes or more to shake the owl sleep from her eyes and begin to notice the sounds around her. But it was only 4:30 p.m. and much too light outside for this owl to begin her nightly prowl.
I fixed myself a cup of tea and went to fill my feeders. Usually, the owl was not disturbed by this ritual, but she dropped back inside her box when I walked behind the feeders to see what more I could learn about the Sharpie. The hawk apparently was not that hungry, for it had left not only the starling's head, but also its wings and part of its back. Sixty percent of juvenile Sharpies don't make it through their first winter, so I was pleased that this raptor, already sporting rufous marks on its chest and some gray feathers on its brown back, was a strong candidate for adulthood. I left the remains where they were and went back inside.
Because the owl usually left her box during my dinner hour, I couldn't always watch her go. But this evening I was alone, so I settled at an upstairs window, hoping she would perch on a tree near the house as she had done before. She had always been a creature of habit, sitting trance-like in the opening of her box late in the afternoon, and waking with the waning light. The more the light drained away, the more alive she became. Suddenly, every noise in the neighborhood would attract her attention, and she would lean far out to see what was going on. When just the proper amount of darkness was achieved, she would drop from her box and fly into a small tree. There, like a furry robot, she would rotate, her head toward every sound, shake out her feathers, preen, and drop silently into the night.
It was 5:20 p.m. and barely light enough for me to sense the owl was still there, and then she flew. I don't know why I didn't suspect what she would do. She had given me enough clues. The owl flew straight to the starling's remains. I could see her wings flailing as she did whatever it took to get that meal down. Then she walked over to the base of a tree and rested, her silhouette an oval with "ears." After some moments, she fluttered away into the night. The next morning, the Sharpie returned to finish its meal and twice searched the area on foot, but nothing remained. The owl had devoured every feather and bone.
I was surprised to learn that the sleepy repose my owl assumed daily was just a ruse and that she could rouse herself instantly when it was to her advantage. Cunning and ferocious by night, screech-owls fade into the background by day when they are most vulnerable. That little owl at the celery farm sitting so meekly in a gloved hand while its human captors went about their curious business was but the mild and gentle Dr. Jekyll of a dual personality. The aggressive Mr. Hyde lurked very near the edges of its docile demeanor waiting for dark or any chance opportunity to be released. What a unique disguise to ensure its survival in a habitat densely packed with curious humans and other enemies.
Judith Cinquina is a freelance writer who also spends her time teaching birdwatching to adults and running the Mount Peter, New York, hawk watch.|