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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Tom Vezo

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Hoooo Goes There?
Western screech owls are loud, very loud, but for the most part, they keep a low profile, lying in wait for small mammals they can attack with their deadly claws.

By Mark Crudup

Should you ever be walking through the woods, sometime after dark, and you feel like you're being watched, you probably are. Not by Jason or Freddie or Chucky, but by a western screech owl.

The owls, which have eyes that emit a yellowish glow and heads that can pivot nearly 360 degrees, are best known for their trademark screech. Characterized by bird-watchers as a series of accelerating notes — similar to a pingpong ball bouncing to a stop — the owls use these calls to communicate with one another, especially during mating rituals.

Although it would make an impressive battle cry, when hunting, the birds actually sit quietly in trees, watching for prey. Because of their grayish chests and the thin black markings on their bellies, the 7- to 13-inch birds are well camouflaged and often mistaken for branches.

Surviving mostly on insects, scorpions and small mammals, the owl tackles its prey with its long claws and attacks with its sharp beak. After the prey is dead, it's devoured whole. Later, the bones and the fur are regurgitated in the form of small pellets.

Unlike bobcats and other animals in the woods, western screech owls typically mate for life. Females lay from two to five eggs at a time and stay with them during incubation, while the males gather food. Although most owls build nests in tree holes chiseled out by woodpeckers, some are finding refuge in the manmade birdhouses that are being installed by conservationists in an effort to protect the population. Like many species that range across the western United States, habitat loss is a real concern. And for at least one owl, it's something to screech about.

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