I received a recent email from Lewis Chapman seeking help in solving the identity of a nocturnal caller. Chapman and his wife moved to Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee, in late June.
“Shortly after we arrived we started hearing a strange night bird call that could best be described as an eerie winnowing,” he wrote in his email. After the couple conducted some Internet research into the mysterious after-hours vocalist, his wife suggested the caller might be a snipe.
As mentioned in previous columns, the snipe is a real bird despite its reputation as a mythical creature thanks to the rural tradition of the “snipe hunt.” While the calling bird at their home did remind them of a Wilson’s snipe, they were not convinced.
“Is this the right time of year to be hearing one in our area?” Lewis asked in his email. “Is there another bird that makes this kind of winnowing?” Both of his astute questions helped me narrow the possibilities.
In my reply, I did inform Lewis that the Wilson’s snipe, as well as the closely related American woodcock, make their home in the region. The summer season, however, isn’t the best time of year to hear either of these relatively elusive shorebirds. These birds are most vocal at the peak of their breeding season, which usually occurs much earlier in the year.
It was his second question, especially the description of the “winnowing” sound, that got me thinking in an entirely different direction. It also helped that I’ve heard some of these small, nocturnal vocalists at my own home in recent weeks. I suggested that the Chapmans get online and look up the song and other vocalizations of the Eastern Screech-owl.
An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually only between six and nine inches in length. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. On a recent South Carolina trip I made several visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island. On several of these visits I attended the daily educational programs conducted by the zoo staff at the gardens that are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.
Two of the shows featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would have no hesitation at trying to make a meal of the much smaller owl.
Because of their small size, screech-owls prey on some comparatively small creatures, including insects, small rodents, amphibians and reptiles. The Eastern screech-owl is also a cavity-nesting bird and will accept bird boxes provided by humans so long as the box’s entrance hole is customized to their size.
The screech-owl is probably the owl most likely to encounter human beings. It’s an adaptable little feathered predator, fully as at home in the backyard and garden as it is in parks and woodlands. In addition to nesting in cavities, this owl roosts in them during the daytime hours. Look for roosting screech-owls in knotholes of trees or in unoccupied wood duck boxes. Although they come in two color phases — red and gray — both variations are quite capable of camouflage. When perched or roosting, these small owls blend remarkably with their surroundings.
The Eastern screech owl also produces a variety of odd wails and other vocalizations including a distinctive, trembling “whinny” call that is often made when the owl feels curious or alarmed. It’s a wavering, haunting call that is made after dark, most often at the hours closer to dawn and dusk. Imitating the call of a screech-owl or playing a recording is also a trick for getting some shy songbirds to show themselves. Screech-owls are unwelcome neighbors among songbirds, which will flock to this owl’s call and band together to “mob” the predator and try to convince it to depart the immediate area.
In addition to the Eastern screech-owl, the United States is also home to several other small owls, including Western screech-owl, Northern pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, flammulated owl and elf owl.
After I pointed to the screech-owl as the identity of the unseen caller at the Chapman home, I did receive another email from Lewis. My suggestion of the screech-owl proved correct. “It’s fun having the Eastern screech-owl in our woods,” he wrote back. “It has a beautiful call and most nights it does it for quite awhile.”
Screech-owls do make good neighbors. Their prey preferences remove many nuisance insects and rodents from the habitat they share with humans as well as other wildlife. If you’re hearing an odd, winnowing call from the edge of the woods at your own home, there’s a good chance that you have one of these small owls as a neighbor.
Since moving to Laurel Bloomery, the Chapmans have already seen many great backyard birds, including indigo bunting, great crested flycatcher, ruby-throated hummingbird, house wren, black-and-white warbler, pileated woodpecker and chipping sparrow. Now they can also add Eastern screech-owl to the list. Who knows? They may some day also add a Wilson’s snipe to their yard list of birds.
To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email email@example.com.