All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness
it calls out again and again.
- Ted Kooser, Nebraska Poet Laureate
Ted Kooser's got that right - that's what they are, and that's what they do. Screech owls are no bigger than a human heart, and they do call at night, especially in the spring, but I've never heard one "screech."
Way back in 1758, Carolus Linnaeus - the Swedish Naturalist who developed binomial nomenclature for classifying plants and animals - gave screech owls the genus name, Asio, in honor of Roman naturalist and, incidentally, naval commander, Pliny the Elder. Since then the biological hair-splitters have given it the genus name of Otus, but the scientific community changed it again: megascops asio for the eastern race, and, M kennicottii, for the western race. Eastern owls are most often reddish in color, while ours are grayer. No one, however, has bothered to change the name from "screech" to "whinny" - which is what it should be.
And they are tough little owls! When I was running the Children's Zoo in Portland years ago, a woman came into my office, handed me a shoebox, and said, "I found this baby owl injured alongside the road." It wasn't a "baby" owl, however, it was a full-grown screech owl, but so badly mangled I couldn't believe it was alive. One wing was torn off, the lower mandible was shoved to the side and out of the sockets, one eye was crushed to jelly and it had a broken leg. I put it back in the box and set it on the top of a filing cabinet, sure it was going to die.
I was so sure it had died, I completely forgot about it. Two days later when I walked into my office, my wonderful, priceless secretary Maxine, was all over me like a dirty shirt.
"How could you do that?" she said, shaking her finger at me. "How could you let that poor little owl suffer?"
Then I saw what she was talking about. There, standing on one leg blinking at us was that torn-up owl, alive. And when I went to pick it up, it tried to bite me - but it couldn't, its jaws were out of alignment.
I went out to the Mouse House - a huge loaf of plaster-of-Paris "bread" full of mice we fed to snakes, lizards, owls and hawks - knocked one in the head, brought it into the office. Maxine didn't like that part, and neither did I - I don't enjoy killing anything. I then cut up the mouse for the owl. But first I had to gently coax its lower mandible back into its sockets, which was successful, after which it proceeded to swallow every piece of the mouse I fed it. What a tough little guy it was!
Now I have a mystery: How many screech owls reside in the pine and juniper forests around Central Oregon? I don't have a clue, and I'm supposed to. I had that question tossed to me the other day, and I was stumped. Thirty years ago I would have been really bothered by that, but now that I'm over the hill at 82 I just ask someone else. And who better than you?
So, how many whinnying owls have you seen or heard in your backyard, out hiking, camping or riding?
I know of a pair at Black Butte, because I received a call from a resident who had them nesting in a gray squirrel box in his backyard. I even got a photo of it, not too good mind you, but it's an OK shot. I also know screech owls are residents around OMSI's Hancock Field Station over near Fossil. I have a great photo of one that was sleeping the day away in the rafters of Berrie Hall, the dining facility at the camp.
My nesting-box collaborator, Don McCartney, and I started out to see if we could attract small owls to nesting boxes and after a lot of arm-waving we set out several boxes in the Delicious Fire burn area near Tumalo Reservoir for screech, pygmy, and saw-whet owls. To date, we have had zero response. Shows you what I know about small owls...
Once in a great while, someone will call and ask about things that hoot and toot in the night, but unless I can hear what the sound really is, it's difficult to tell whooooo is whoooo.
Screech owls are common over in the swamp (Willamette Valley). In fact, according to the Atlas of Oregon Wildlife, they range all the way from the coast to the Snake River. Screech owls rarely have much difficulty finding food as they primarily feed on rodents, especially voles - small, mouse-like rodents that multiply in prodigious numbers.
Like all raptors, screech owls are opportunists as well. If they are living near a place with lots of small fish in a pond, they become a "fishing" owl. By the same token, if the owl finds a large population of house sparrows, it will feed on them.
OK, now you know a little about screech owls, so get out there and call 'em up, then when you hear (or better yet, see) one, send me an e-mail: email@example.com, and we'll know more tomorrow about screech owls than we know today.