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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Eastern Screech-Owl

Megascops asio ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

If a mysterious trill catches your attention in the night, bear in mind the spooky sound may come from an owl no bigger than a pint glass. Common east of the Rockies in woods, suburbs, and parks, the Eastern Screech-Owl is found wherever trees are, and they’re even willing to nest in backyard nest boxes. These supremely camouflaged birds hide out in nooks and tree crannies through the day, so train your ears and listen for them at night.

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Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Eastern Screech-Owl is a short, stocky bird, with a large head and almost no neck. Its wings are rounded; its tail is short and square. Pointed ear tufts are often raised, lending its head a distinctive silhouette.

  • Color Pattern

    Eastern Screech-Owls can be either mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown (rufous). Whatever the overall color, they are patterned with complex bands and spots that give the bird excellent camouflage against tree bark. Eyes are yellow.

  • Behavior

    Eastern Screech-Owls are active at night and are far more often heard than seen—most bird watchers know this species only from its trilling or whinnying song. However, this cavity-roosting owl can be attracted to nest boxes or, if you’re sharp-eyed, spotted in daylight at the entrance to its home in a tree cavity.

  • Habitat

    Trees define the Eastern Screech-Owl’s habitat. This owl is fairly common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. It shuns treeless expanses of mountains or plains.

Range Map Help

Eastern Screech-Owl Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult gray morph

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Adult gray morph
    • Small, stocky owl with ear tufts usually visible
    • Patterned gray overall
    • Heavy, dark barring on underpars
    • © Michael Allen, Rector, Pennsylvania, June 2007
  • Adult red morph

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Adult red morph
    • Stocky and compact owl
    • Short ear tufts
    • Bright rufous-orange overall
    • Dense rufous mottling and barring on underparts
    • © Chris Buelow, Ipswich, Massachusetts, February 2011
  • Adult brown morph

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Adult brown morph
    • Small, compact owl
    • Small ear tufts
    • Overall color intermediate between gray and red morphs
    • Heavy barring on underparts
    • © Greg Page, Katy Prairie, Texas, November 2010
  • Adult red and gray morphs

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Adult red and gray morphs
  • Juvenile with red morph adult

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Juvenile with red morph adult
    • Small and compact
    • Juveniles lack ear tufts
    • Mostly covered in fluffy gray and brown downy feathers
    • Finely barred breast and belly
    • © Cleber Ferreira, Orlando, Florida, May 2011
  • Juveniles

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Juveniles
    • Small, compact owls
    • Covered in fluffy gray down
    • Finely barred plumage
    • Ear tufts start to develop on older juveniles
    • © Michael Allen, Rector, Pennsylvania, June 2007

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Western Screech-Owl

    Adult
    • Very similar to Eastern Screech-Owl
    • Bill usually darker than on Eastern
    • Breast streaked more vertically compared to Eastern with distinct horizontal cross-bars
    • Best distinguished by voice
    • © Bryant Olsen, Arizona, March 2011
  • Adult

    Northern Saw-whet Owl

    Adult
    • Smaller than Eastern Screech-Owl
    • Lack of ear tufts makes head look completely rounded
    • Thick, vertical chestnut streaks on breast
    • Fine white streaks on brown crown
    • © Cameron Rognan, Amherst Island, Ontario, Canada, February 2009
  • Juvenile

    Northern Saw-whet Owl

    Juvenile
    • Similar in size to Eastern Screech-Owl
    • Plumage distinctive, with bright buff underparts and dark head/face
    • Fluffy, rounded head with no ear tufts
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Carmel, California, May 2010

Similar Species

Eastern and Western Screech-Owl’s ranges do not overlap, so almost all the time they can be safely identified based on location. The two species look extremely similar, but fortunately their vocalizations are quite different. Eastern Screech-Owl gives a whistled trill and Western a series of bouncing notes that accelerate toward the end of the song. The Northern Saw-whet Owl is slightly smaller than Eastern Screech-Owl and lacks ear tufts, so its head is always rounded. Northern Saw-whet Owl has heavy brown streaks on a white breast, with less intricate patterning than screech-owls have. Juvenile Saw-whets have a dark brown head and back, and are oddly buffy-orange on their breast and belly.

Regional Differences

The “McCall’s” Eastern Screech-Owl (Asio otus mccallii), inhabits south-central Texas and parts of northern Mexico. It may prove to be a separate species, as it is always gray and never gives the “whinny” call. The two common color morphs, gray and rufous, represent individual variation and don’t vary consistently by region or subspecies.

Backyard Tips

Eastern Screech-Owls readily accept nest boxes; consider putting one up to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site. These owls also use birdbaths and will visit them to drink and bathe.

Find This Bird

Listen in wooded areas at night for the trills and whinnies of this vocal owl. Your best chance of seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl may be to listen for the excited voices of songbirds mobbing an owl they have found. You can also look closely at tree cavities and nest boxes; especially on cold sunny days, you may see the owl sunning sleepily in the entrance.