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Western Screech-Owl

Megascops kennicottii ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A short series of high toots accelerating through the night announces the presence of a Western Screech-Owl. These compact owls—not much taller than a standard pair of binoculars—hunt in woods and deserts of western North America, where their wide-ranging diet includes everything from worms and crayfish to rats and bats. Found in urban parks and residential areas as well as wilder places, Western Screech-Owls nest in tree cavities, and will readily take to backyard nest boxes.

Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Western Screech-Owls are small owls with stocky bodies. They have somewhat square heads, almost no neck, and conspicuous ear tufts. The tail is short.

  • Color Pattern

    They are superbly camouflaged birds with a base color that can be grayish, brownish, or reddish-brown (rufous). The upperparts are flecked with white; the breast and belly are pale with dark, spidery streaks. The face is pale, outlined with dark arcs. The eyes are yellow.

  • Behavior

    Western Screech-Owls are nocturnal hunters and are far more often heard than seen. They spend days either in a roost hole or looking out from the entrance, where they are sometimes found by noisy groups of mobbing songbirds.

  • Habitat

    They live in forests (particularly among deciduous trees) at elevations up to about 6,000 feet. They are fairly tolerant of people and may be found in suburbs or parks, or attracted to forested backyards with a nest box.

Range Map Help

Western Screech-Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  •  

    Western Screech-Owl

     
    • Small, compact gray owl
    • Bold black streaks on breast with thinner horizontal bars
    • "Ear" tufts occasionally hidden on crown
    • © Jackie Bowman, New Mexico, February 2015
  •  

    Western Screech-Owl

     
    • Small, stocky, gray owl
    • "Ear" tufts usually visible
    • Bold black streaks on breast with thinner, more subtle "crosshatches"
    • © CVBirder, Cache County, Utah, January 2013
  • Adult

    Western Screech-Owl

    Adult
    • Small and stocky owl
    • Mostly gray, paler on breast
    • Thick black streaks scattered on breast with thinner horizontal "crosshatches"
    • © Janice L, Tualatin River NWR, Oregon, February 2011

Similar Species

The extremely similar Eastern Screech-Owl has little or no range overlap with the Western Screech-Owl, so these two species can usually be identified by referring to a range map. Their vocalizations are also different: Eastern Screech-Owl has a descending whinny or a steady tremolo call, while Western has an accelerating series of hollow hoots with a bouncing rhythm. The Whiskered Screech-Owl of extreme southern Arizona and New Mexico tends to occur in canyon woodlands at somewhat higher elevation than Western Screech-Owl; its voice lacks the Western’s accelerating rhythm. Flammulated Owl has brown eyes, not yellow eyes. Northern Saw-whet Owl lacks ear tufts and has less intricate patterning than screech-owls.

Regional Differences

Western Screech-Owls in the Pacific Northwest tend to be more rufous than in other parts of the range; birds of the Desert Southwest tend to be grayer.

Backyard Tips

Try attracting a breeding pair of screech-owls by putting up a nest box. Make sure the box is in place well before breeding season; attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

The best way to encounter a Western Screech-Owl is to use your ears. Listen at night for a string of hollow, high tooting notes with the rhythm of a bouncing ball. They may occur in or near towns, and they are vocal for much of the year, not just the spring and summer. During daytime they are hard to spot, but they may become the targets of small songbirds that form mobbing groups to get the owl to move away. If you hear a commotion made by chickadees, nuthatches, and other small birds, it’s worth taking a careful look for an owl or hawk hidden nearby.

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