2020-2021 Eastern Screech Owls: Build It and They Will Come

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Eastern Screech Owls are one of my favorite animals. In my anecdotal encounters with them over the years while hiking through popular trails in Ontario, they’ve shown to have quite a range in personality types. Some seem angry at your presence. Others act like celebrities and can’t get enough of humans taking their picture. Some like to “sun”, basically tan, during the day. Others are described as the exact opposite of the above. Many stay hidden and out of view as much as possible and I’m sure that reflects the view of many in my back forest because I’ve never encountered them. I’ve heard them calling at night over the years but could never find them when hiking despite trying for years. With grey and red morph colors and a wide range of behaviors, they’re a very interesting bird of prey. That’s part of their draw to me.

The Set Up: How It Began

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Despite living in an area surrounded by forest, I had never thought to set up an owl box in my area. Two factors in 2020 changed this view: COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and a chance Facebook post that I stumbled on that showed an eastern screech owl box with a nesting female. The COVID-19 lockdowns meant I wasn’t going to be able to hike in the areas I’d usually go to find screech owls. Knowing they’re in my back forest, and seeing the Facebook post, I decided to build two owl boxes and hope that they’d take them up as their home; or at least use them like they’d take a rest at a hotel. I also figured, with them being nocturnal, that I wouldn’t be able to get many good pictures or video unless I installed a game camera. It would trigger when the owl came into the box and if it had significant movement. The idea was coming together.

In early November, I assembled the two boxes. I had staked out the two areas within range of my house (and within range to power the camera) but hadn’t decided on a final spot. My dad had the idea to set one up on a larger tree before a strong windstorm came through my area and I agreed. We didn’t bother lining the bottom or finishing it before putting it up because it was supposed to be temporary. When we returned to check how it had held up a day later, a screech owl was inside the box much to our surprise. We put the box back up as it was and left it. It was not there the next day, so I finalized the box and kept the original location, seeing as it clearly caught the owl’s attention and installed the second box a few hundred feet away. Both were installed along the tree/grass line of the property.

The First (offical) Visit

After installing the boxes and one camera on the box closest to the house, not a single visit (at least in the box with the camera) would occur until Christmas day, which was nearly two months later. It was quite the welcome surprise to wake up and see a screech owl inside the box around the same time as opening presents. It was a grey morph and likely a female. I couldn’t distinguish gender at the time, but later encounters with another screech owl led me to believe this as I’ll explain.

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Subsequent Visits and a New Owl

A pattern began to emerge with the owl visitor. It would use the box every time there was inclement weather. Christmas day featured snow, a week later also had snowfall, and it was right in the box to be found. For the next few months, the same screech owl would visit intermittently in the box with the camera and nearly guaranteed on days with snowfall. It is possible that it frequented the other box more often, but with my ankle fractured on a fall hiking (I explain this in another blog), I couldn’t regularly check this second box.

In most situations where the owl entered the box, it either perched at the opening for hours or went into the back corners and slept for most of the day. It didn’t make for the most interesting footage on those days, but it was very curious about any noises that would go by the box. It would peer up and look outside the opening. This included humans, cats, and any other animal loud enough to wake it. The more interesting of the visits before mating season was when the owl caught a mouse and brought it into the box early in the morning. I knew something was different this time because instead of perching or going to sleep, it wasn’t passive this time; it was wide awake, shifty, and looked around the box as if it was scoping to see If the area was clear. After a few minutes of this activity, it was revealed that the owl had caught a mouse. The video enclosed will show the entire encounter.

Mating season brought the most “excitement”, so to speak. Both boxes were in regular daily use for a few weeks. They’d regularly be sunning and looking out their hole. The male would appear in both boxes and would regularly call to the female in them. On one occasion, the female showed up, they embraced for a brief moment and she left. I could reliably find them in the boxes for two weeks during this early May time frame. It was unpredictable otherwise.

In terms of troubleshooting, one issue we had was from squirrels. They’d see the box in the same way the owls would: a new area for shelter and nesting. The owls hated when the squirrels would show up. Their first appearance was mid-April. In one case, it led to a fight for the territory. Unfortunately, the owls decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and left the box. When I shooed the squirrel away, it didn’t matter in the end. The damage was done. I believe this was the main reason why the owls decided not to nest in the boxes.

This season was a success if only because I managed to prove that screech owls are residents of our back forest. Both boxes saw regular visitors in mating season. Both had screech owls sunning out of the entrances. I didn’t get the mating pair and screech owlets that I was hoping for, but since both boxes are still up and will be going into winter again this year, I plan on keeping this an ongoing blog with future additions to be made year-by-year if needed.

Eastern Screech Owl Eating Mouse

Eastern Screech Owl Attracts Mate

Spying on the Outside World