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Backyard birding: Screech owls roost together

February 28, 2013 at 09:00 PM

The State Journal-Register

The two Eastern screech owls look cozy roosting together in an owl box in David and Mary Hedrick’s backyard.

“They share the box together. I’m not so sure the little red one is happy about it,” said Mary as she took pictures of the owls from her window. “But he does put up with the gray one.”

Screech owls are small owls, about six to 10 inches in length according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They are common in the eastern United States and can be found “wherever there are trees,” according to Cornell.

They also are known to use backyard nest boxes.

The Hedricks live in a rural part of Menard County, not far from Athens.

The owls wintering in the Hedricks’ backyard are of two distinct color phases. Most common are the red (rufous) and gray phases, with a few being intermediate or brown in color.

Jacques Nuzzo of the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur said the gray owl is probably the intermediate color phase.

He also said having two owls roosting together is unusual, and added he is unaware of instances where screech owls roost communally.

Mary said the red-phase screech owl is the first one to arrive in the winter. The gray (or brown) phase owl arrives near the latter part of the winter.

The Hedricks said the owls do not stay to raise a family in the box, but merely use it as a winter roost.

Mary said she is not sure if the owls are a mated pair or just roommates during the colder months.

Should they be a couple, Mary is trying to entice them to stay with a little re-decorating.

“I did learn that they were more apt to nest in a box if there was some sawdust on the floor of the box,” Mary said. “Dave was kind enough to create the sawdust and hold the ladder for me.

“I am hoping they are enjoying the new décor.”

Screech owls are supremely camouflaged to remain unseen as they roost in tree cavities.

Birders often identify them by their whinnying (not screeching) call at night.

For more backyard birding videos:

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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