Barn owl

Western Screech Owl, a feisty little raptor

The Western Screech Owl (Otus kennicotti) breeds throughout the western U.S., from southern Canada to Baja California, and other parts of Mexico. This little owl is the fourth and smallest of the raptors I handle and interpret at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I’ve written previously about the Harris’ Hawk, the Barn Owl, and the American Kestrel. (I also handle snakes.)

Western screech owl

The Western Screech Owl has a body length of 8- to 10 inches, and a wingspan of 20- to 24 inches. (The infamous Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is slightly smaller.) The yellow eyes are very penetrating. When alert or excited, it raises some feathers on its head – “ear” tufts. The owl is usually gray and streaked with black and white (there is a red race). The only other owl in this region it may be confused with is the Elf Owl, which is much smaller (5 inches in length) and lacks the ear tufts. The screech owl’s toes are zygodactylous (two pointed forward, two pointing backwards). There’s a word for Scrabble fans.

Screech owls generally do not migrate. They are cavity nesters, so you might see one peeking out of a hole in a saguaro cactus. (They will also nest in boxes.) The female lays 4- to 6 eggs, each about 2- to 3 days apart. The chicks hatch after about 26 days and open their eyes after about a week. The female broods the chicks for two weeks while the male brings food. The chicks stay in the nest for about five weeks, all the time being fed by their parents. Life expectancy in the wild is 4- to 6 years, but captive birds are known to have reached an age of 18 years.

The Screech owl is a fierce predator and will attack prey much larger, relative to its size, in comparison with other owls. The screech owl will attack large Norway rats, mice, lizards, insects, smaller birds, scorpions, spiders, ground squirrels, and fish. Its normal habitat in the desert is the wooded areas near mountains, or along tree-lined rivers. In wooded areas, the owl’s dull color makes good camouflage.

Despite its name, the owl doesn’t screech. Instead, it has a series of trilling calls. Screech owls have keen hearing which help in capturing prey, but their hearing is not as specialized as that of the Barn Owl.

Barn Owls, Tyto Alba?

Tyto alba is a denizen of the night who stalks his prey by sound and stealth. He may have passed you close by but you didn’t notice, or maybe you felt a brief ghostly presence. On silent wings, the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) can hunt in almost complete darkness, relying only on the faint sounds made by his intended meal. Fringe-like feathers on the leading edge of the wings help make the flight silent.

The barn owl is a very adaptable bird of prey that is found in specific habitats on all continents except Antarctica. It is the most widely distributed land bird. Barn owls eat rodents, and perhaps because we humans attract such beasties, barn owls favor nesting near human habitation in barns, under bridges, in mine shafts, and in palm trees. In the southwest, barn owls also nest in undercuts in arroyos, and may be found in desert grasslands, and in trees around agricultural fields.

Barn owls often swallow their prey whole, but they can’t digest fur and bone, so they regurgitate pellets. (Dissection of pellets allows researchers to study what the owls eat.)

Barnowl-female

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barn-owl-male

Barn owls are sexually dimorphic, that is, the males and females have differing plumage as you can see in the photos. The females tend to be bigger, darker, and more speckled than the males. The birds average about 12 inches in body length and have wingspans of about 33 inches. Weights in adults vary from 10 to 20 ounces.

The feathers form a facial disk designed to focus sound to the owl’s ears. The ears themselves are not symmetrical on the skull as in other animals. Rather the left ear points downward, and the right ear points upward. Therefore, sound reaches each ear at slightly different times and allows the owl to exactly pinpoint the source. Some researchers claim that each ear hears with slightly different frequency sensitivity. That also aides in sound location. Barn owls are smart and learn all the squeaks and twitters of their prey so that they can identify not only where it is, but also what it is. Perhaps the only rodent with equally good hearing is the Kangaroo Rat.

Birds have four toes or talons. They are configured either three in front – one in back, or two and two. The barn owl can move its outer toes to form both configurations. That enables the owl to form a good web-like trap when snatching prey. The barn owl has serrations on the claw of the middle toe to aid grooming.

Barn owls have many vocalizations, some researchers count as many as 15 distinct calls as well as tongue clicking and wing clapping. Some of the sounds are for proclamation of territory, others are for alarm, and some are for courtship and mating rituals. Many of the sounds are screaming or screeching; others include hissing or wheezing, and whistling. None of the sounds are what we would call an owl hoot.

Nesting occurs in the spring in most areas, but can occur any time of year if there is abundant prey available. The female may lay up to six eggs each one to two days apart. Incubation takes 33 days and the young hatch one to two days apart. If the parents don’t provide enough food, the older chicks starve out and may even consume the younger chicks. The chicks will fledge seven to eight weeks after hatching. Barn owls typically breed at an age of one year, and there is a high mortality rate in the wild. Typical wild life expectancy is 2 years, but captive birds have lived into their high teens.

Barn owls are difficult to observe in the wild because of their nocturnal habits. I have seen them sleeping in mine shafts. If you want to seem them close up, go out to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where Docents frequently have them on display.

Barn-owl-chicks