The Screech Owl
Nature Bulletin No. 100 January 25, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation
THE SCREECH OWL
At the foot of a dead oak where we hoped to find some winter
mushrooms beneath the grass and fallen leaves, we spied several pellets
about the size and shape of the end of your thumb. They were clean and
odorless, each containing the skull and bones of a mouse tightly
wrapped in a layer of the animal's fur. Owls and hawks swallow their
prey whole or in large pieces and later spit out the indigestible matter in
the form of pellets. Up in this tree was a woodpecker hole from which
the round unwinking yellow eyes of a screech owl glared at us.
A screech owl, about the size of a robin but much chunkier, is our only
small owl with ear tufts like "horns". They prey on mice, chipmunks
and ground squirrels, fish, crayfish, amphibians, small snakes,
angleworms, and large insects. When other food is scarce, and their
fuzzy white young -- usually four in number -- require much food, they
frequently kill birds but apparently not enough to seriously affect the
bird population. No owl, of any species, should be killed.
An owl's plumage is different from that of most birds, being soft and
downy with a velvet nap on the full length of the quills. This explains
their noiseless night. Their remarkable hearing is due to very large
external ear openings, each covered with a movable flap. Their eyes are
exceptionally large, with an iris expansible to be sensitive to the faintest
light, so that they can see at night as well as in daytime. They have
eyelashes, which is uncommon in birds. They close the upper eyelid,
rather than the lower lid, as most birds do, and they have a third eyelid
which is translucent film. The eyes are immovable and look directly
forward so that if you circle around him he must turn his head to watch
you until his beak points down the middle of his back; then it snaps
around to look back at you on the other side. He will not twist off his
head as some small boys believe.
The love call of the screech owl, given only at night, is a long quavering
cry descending the scale; sometimes followed by guttural trill all on one
note. It is an eerie sound, believed by superstitious folks to prophecy
sickness or death. Some immediately turn a left shoe upside-down;
some throw a nail in the fire. Some pray.
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Update: June 2012