Details: Through the help of kids just like you, Earth Rangers and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) are protecting the western screech owl (Megascops kennicottii macfarlanei). The donations raised for this Bring Back the Wild project are helping to:
- Conduct night surveys of owl populations. Researchers will head out into the field with recordings of owl hoots. They will play their song and look and listen for a response. This process will allow the researchers to learn how many western screech owls are in the area
- Survey nesting locations during the day to find out more about their preferred habitat
A message from Western screech owl researcher Roslyn Johnson…
“The Western Screech Owl is a small, nocturnal owl that lives in old cottonwood trees along streams, rivers and lakes. Unfortunately, researchers do not know how many of these owls are out there and how habitat loss has affected populations in BC. Finding out how may of these owls there are and where they are found is an important step in conserving this species.”
Check out the latest updates about western screech owls!
- Nine subspecies (types) of western screech owls live in North America. Some live west of the Rocky Mountains from northern Canada and Alaska through to Mexico. Our Bring Back the Wild project is helping to protect one of the two types that live in Canada, Megascops kennicottii macfarlanei.
- They have ear tufts that stick out at the top of their head; these feathers can be tucked (by being pointed straight up) to help them camouflage.
- Baby owls are called owlets; they have fluffy plumage that they keep for the first seven to nine days.
- Although they mostly get around by flying, screech owls can walk and will even take a dip in water, such as a creek, to rinse off.
- Western screech owls have a diverse diet. They eat small animals like mice, insects and fish as well as prey that are larger than them, like mallard ducks and cottontail rabbits.
Threatened in Canada (COSEWIC 2012)
The western screech owl is a small owl with yellow eyes and feather ear tufts. Adults range in size from 19-25 cm and have grey or grey-brown feathers with small black streaks. The females are four percent larger than the males in body size, weighing around 120-305 g while males weigh 120-230 g. These owls are named after their call which sounds like the classic whistle-like “Hoot” and is repeated five to 10 times, picking up speed throughout the call. Although western screech owls mostly fly, they can also walk into deep thickets or brush to hide from predators and take a dip in water to rinse off. Young owls can even climb trees. Screech owls are experts at staying hidden using camouflage. By squeezing their body feathers in and pointing their ear tufts up they take on a tree-like position. Combinedwith the colours and patterns of their feathers, their ear tufts allow them to blend in with the surrounding forest. Like many birds, western screech owls molt (lose their feathers and regrow new ones), which takes place after they breed.
Western screech owls make their home in the southeastern corner of British Columbia. They prefer low-lying woodland forest habitat with lots of big trees for nesting and roosting with a water source nearby, like a river or lake. Western screech owls use pre-made homes and they don’t add any new nesting material. They find a place to nest either in holes carved out in trees by other birds, such as woodpeckers, or in man-made nest boxes. The holes in trees are often found in cottonwood trees and are around 30-36 cm deep with an entrance of 15 cm wide. When they are young, western screech owls will sometimes spread out over long distances, up to 300 km, from summer until the fall in search of the best habitat. Once they’ve found their spot they stay put, as these birds are non-migratory, meaning they do not fly south for the winter.
Western screech owls play an important role in their forest home. By eating a variety of prey, they help control population size of other animals, such as mice. It has also been documented that western screech owls feed on carrion (dead animals). This behaviour is important for decomposition of organic matter, a process providing essential nutrients to the soil that are used by plants. Western screech owls also have an interesting relationship with birds like the woodpecker. They depend on these birds to carve out holes in trees while digging for insects. It is these caverns that western screech owls use for their home.
Like other owls, the western screech owl is nocturnal, which means they hunt at night. They are also able to fly virtually silently. Screech owls are very patient predators. They simply sit quietly up in a tree and wait. When something good to eat moves below, the owl will silently swoop down and catch it. To help them stay hidden while waiting for their meal to come strolling by theses owls use camouflage. They eat small mammals like rodents and small rabbits as well as birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, worms and even insects. The diet of a screech owl is pretty varied and even includes animals that are larger than them, such as mallard ducks and cottontail rabbits.
Western screech owls are very romantic; they court each other with songs and affectionate gestures like gifts and preening (cleaning each other’s feathers). Once they find “that special someone” they form a long-term breeding pair, usually raising one brood (group of baby owls) per year. Starting in January and February males will begin singing near a nest site to attract a female. Then, throughout March and April, the birds will court and mate. During courtship the female will beg for food by whining; the male will bring her food, bowing to present it and even feeding her. This behaviour is called courtship feeding. From late March to mid-May the female lays two to seven eggs. The female incubates the eggs by sitting on the nest for 26 to 34 days. The male helps out by bringing food to the mom and baby owls once they hatch. At hatch, owlets have fluffy plumage, their eyes are closed and they are unable to fly. After about a week they open their eyes and lose their egg tooth, which many animals have to help them hatch out of their egg. At seven to nine days old owlets molt, losing the fluffy plumage they were born with and growing the adult feathers that they need to fly. For the next five weeks the young owls will work on their flying skills and by July and August they will fledge (leave the nest).
Habitat loss due to urban development, agriculture and hydroelectric projects is the #1 threat facing western screech owls in Canada. Western screech owls nest in cottonwood forest habitats; 1/3 of this type of forest has been lost over the past 100 years. Other threats include pollution from things such as pesticides and accidents with vehicles on the road. As of the early 2000s, western screech owl populations were estimated at just 50-200 individuals and the species was listed as endangered in Canada by COSEWIC. In 2012 there was small population growth in southeastern British Columbia so their status was changed to threatened (COSEWIC 2012). Today, the western screech owl is still listed as threatened and their population size remains quite small. Although their population is no longer listed as endangered there is still a lot of research and support needed to protect this incredible bird. There are lots of things we don’t know about the western screech owl, which is why research is needed to find out more about their population size and what habitat they prefer. It is only through learning more about the western screech owl that we can better protect them.