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Attracting Owls as Tenants

Mark Faherty
An owl in Mark's backyard.

For several years we’ve had a vacancy in a small, detached apartment on our property. Occasionally, an unwanted squatter would move in and cause trouble, but lately it’s been available. We’ve been looking for a very specific type to move in – relatively quiet during the day, maybe works nights, comfortable with small spaces – at less than one square foot, this apartment isn’t right for just any family. Finally, last week, we got the tenant we were looking for – an Eastern Screech Owl.

On that particularly sunny morning, I noticed a face in the hole. Past failures had me, and my visual cortex, convinced it was just another gray squirrel – these unwanted trouble makers have squatted off and on for several years, thwarting my efforts to attract an owl. My eyes eventually overcame my pessimism, aided by some angry chickadees flitting around the box, and acknowledged that this was, finally, a screech owl - a handsome red morph bird. He stayed the day, his snoozy face always filling the hole except when Blue Jays came to scream at him. Only then did he retreat down into the box – the harassment by the smaller birds didn’t phase him.

Mark Faherty
Eastern Screech-Owl

There are 23 species of screech owl between Canada and Argentina, some with fun names like the “Bare-shanked Screech Owl” of Costa Rica, but there’s only one in Eastern North America. It comes in two flavors, red and gray. I’ve heard plenty of these owls in the five years I’ve been in the house - Eastern Screech Owls are incredibly common in suburbia and even urban spaces. It helps that they have a pretty catholic diet, everything from moths to birds to rats, plus they’re small, meaning they can nest in old woodpecker holes in the smaller diameter trees so ubiquitous around here.

As I mentioned recently, screech owls do not screech – or at least I’ve never heard them do it. They whinny, they whine, they trill, they bark, and they clap their bills. The literature says they do make a harsh screech when defending the nest, but I probably would too if you came after my kids. If you’re wondering whether you have any in your neighborhood, you do – if you don’t believe me, imitate their call some quiet night. You might have to try a couple of nights, but eventually you’ll get a response, and maybe a look. Don’t do it too much and give them a break April – June when they are nesting.

Cornell’s Nest Watch site has anything you need to know about putting up nest boxes for birds, including screech owls. Some kindly folk in Falmouth have been building boxes and installing them for people around town – they are full up with work so I won’t name names. Some boxes have attracted owls within a week or two, but it’s also common to have to wait a few years like I did. If you manage squirrels more aggressively by pulling out their leaf nests, or “dreys”, you may be successful sooner. If you’re a squirrel sympathizer, note that they build a few of these leafy nests and don’t use them all, so it won’t put them out too much.

Boxes intended for American Kestrels and Wood Ducks also work for screech owls. Of course, they evolved to nest in tree cavities, not boxes, so please leave some dead trees on your property, as well as dead, upright branches on otherwise living trees. Many types of wildlife depend on them, from all the cavity-nesting birds to bats to flying squirrels. And, as always, skip the rodenticides – research from Tufts has shown that almost all hawks and owls show rodent poisons in their system, and many die as a result.

Sadly, though I had hopes of a nesting pair settling in, I think this owl was a one-day wonder – I’ve seen no sign of it since. On an unrelated note, if you know of anyone looking for a reasonable rental on Cape Cod, we’ve got one that just became available. I’m calling it a cozy, rustic, fixer-upper with a view…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.