Screech Owl Winter Roost
We found this rare coloured, sweet little screech owl in the Bayview cemetery near the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. There were at least two other Screech owls in nearby trees. I was curious why there were so many Screech owls here. The mature trees seemed to have plenty of good “owl holes” and the view overlooking Burlington Bay of Lake Ontario was quite spectacular but why so many Screech owls in close proximity? Generally speaking, the red morph Screech Owl tends to be a more Southern species. The red-coloured feathers blend in well with similar coloured pine trees and the colourful leaves of changing deciduous trees. I learned that Tennessee and Illinois have the highest numbers of red morph Screech Owls. The little red morph in the above photo does stand out from the grey-coloured bark of this maple tree. We found a grey morph screech owl nearby. You can really see the difference in camouflage ability. The grey morphs blend in well with the grey bark of hardwood trees.
Screech Owl Story
A year or two into working at the Guelph Lake Nature Centre (2002?), the centre received a young screech owl from a family in Guelph. The family had taken down a dead tree in their yard only to discover that the tree had been a nest for baby owls. My understanding is that Screech was the only survivor of this nest and the Nature Centre adopted her as an imprinted, non-releaseable owl. My main job that year (aside from teaching) was to care for this little owl that was stationed in an outdoor cage sheltered by cedar trees, overlooking the lake. I fed her mice daily and sometimes chicks depending on what food was available. As I entered her cage to feed her, she would do what looked like a little dance on her perch. I later learned that she was most likely triangulating or moving her head in a circular motion to focus on sound and putting her prey into the centre of her field of vision (perhaps the mouse that I was carrying). She would then make little calling sounds when I approached. I put the mouse or chick near her beak and she would take it, first with her beak and then quickly with one of her feet, grasping it in her talons and taking little tastes of it before deciding to eat it. At first, I was a bit scared of her and her sharp-looking beak and feet but then I learned to trust her. I even discovered that she really loved to be touched gently on the feathers just above her nose. We bonded that year and I grew to love little Screech. Eventually, the nature centre decided to donate Screech to the Mountsberg Wildlife Centre for their Birds of Prey program so that she could teach children how amazing Screech Owls are. When I brought her in to the Raptor Centre, one of their staff persons held Screech and said “Wow, she is healthy – with a good weight, and definitely a female.” It made me very happy that she was a good weight and well-fed. I was also excited to find out that she was a girl since we were not certain about her gender (it is a bit tricky with screech owls since males and females look the same externally). I was sad to see Screech go but content that she would become a teacher – in fact she became a famous teacher! She has been teaching children about Screech Owls at Mountsberg now for more than ten years. They call her “Echo.” We were able to borrow Screech and her male friend Otis from Mountsberg for a couple of Nature Centre Owl Prowl Programs (above photo taken). During one particular program (A sweetheart Owl Prowl) on Valentine’s evening in February, we left some mice in Screech and Otis’ owl travel cage and later found the mice with their heads missing. I learned later on that this can be a sign of mating behaviour, to leave the body of the prey for the mate as a gift. How romantic:) It was a wonderful feeling to be able to hold Screech on my hand with leather gloves and tresses and teach groups like our Young Naturalists about owls with her beside me watching the children intently. I am thankful for my time with her and for her gentle spirit.