Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Screech Owl

Teacher's Story

"Disquiet yourselves not. 'Tis nothing but a little, downy owl."


OF all the fascinating sounds to be heard at night in the woods, the screech owl's song is surely the most so; its fascination does not depend on music but upon the chills which it sends up and down the spine of the listener, thus attacking a quite different set of nerves than do other bird songs. The weird wail, tremulous and long drawn out, although so blood-curdling, is from the standpoint of the owlet the most beautiful music in the world; by means of it he calls to his mate, cheering her with the assurance of his presence in the world; evidently she is not a nervous creature. The screech owls are likely to sing at night during any part of the year; nor should we infer that when they are singing they are not hunting, for perchance their music frightens their victims into fatal activity. Although the note is so unmistakable, yet there is great variation in the songs of individuals, the great variety of quavers in the song offering ample opportunity for the expression of individuality. Moreover, these owls often give themselves over to tremulous whispering and they emphasize excitement by snapping their beaks in an alarming manner.


Screech owls.

From Country Life in America.

Any bird that is flying about and singing in the night time must be able to see where it is going, and the owls have special adaptations for this. The eyes are very large and the yellow iris opens and closes about the pupil quite similar to the arrangement in the cat's eye, except that the pupil in the owl's eye is round when contracted instead of elongated; in the night this pupil is expanded until it covers most of the eye. The owl does not need to see behind and at the sides, since it does not belong to the birds which are the victims of other birds and animals of prey. The owl is a bird that hunts instead of being hunted, and it needs only to focus its eyes on the creature it is chasing. Thus, its eyes are in the front of the head like our own; but it can see behind, in case of need, for the head turns upon the neck as if it were fitted on a ball-bearing joint. I have often amused myself by walking around a captive screech owl, which would follow me with its eyes by turning the head until it almost made the circle, then the head would twist back with such lightning rapidity that I could hardly detect the movement; it seemed almost as if the head was on a pivot and could be moved around and around indefinitely. Although the owl, like the cat, has eyes fitted for night hunting, it can also see fairly well during the daytime.

A beak with the upper mandible ending in a sharp hook signifies that its owner lives upon other animals and needs to rend and tear flesh. The owl's beak thus formed is somewhat buried in the feathers of the face, which gives it a striking resemblance to a Roman nose. This, with the great, staring, round eyes, bestows upon the owl an appearance of great wisdom. But it is not the beak which the owl uses for a weapon of attack; its strong feet and sharp, curved claws are its weapons for striking the enemy and also for grappling with its prey. The outer toe can be moved back at will, so that in grasping its prey or its perch, two toes may be directed forward and two backward, thus giving a stronger hold.

The ear is very different in form from the ear of other birds; instead of being a mere hole opening into the internal ear, it consists of a fold of skin forming a channel which extends from above the eye around to the side of the throat. (See The Bird, Beebe, p. 217). Thus equipped, while hunting in the dark the owl is able to hear any least rustle of mouse or bird and to know in which direction to descend upon it. There has been no relation established between the ear tufts of the screech owl and its ears, so far as I know, but the way the bird lifts the tufts when it is alert, always suggests that this movement in some way opens up the ear.

In color there are two types among the screech owls, one reddish brown, the other gray. The back is streaked with black, the breast is marked with many shaft-lines of black. The whole effect of the owl's plumage makes it resemble a branch of a tree or a part of the bark, and thus it is protected from prying eyes, during the daytime when it is sleeping. Its plumage is very fluffy and its wing feathers, instead of being stiff to the very edge, have soft fringes which cushion the stroke upon the air. The owl's flight is, therefore, absolutely noiseless and the bird is thus able to swoop down upon its prey without giving warning of its approach.

The screech owls are partial to old apple orchards for nesting sites. They will often use an abandoned nest of a woodpecker; the eggs are almost as round as marbles and as white as chalk, showing very clearly that they are laid within a dark hole, otherwise their color would attract the eyes of enemies. There are usually four eggs; the fubsy little owlets climb out of their home cave by the end of May and are the funniest little creatures imaginable. They make interesting but decidedly snappy pets; they can be fed on insects and raw beef. It is most interesting to see one wake up late in the afternoon after its daytime sleep. All day it has sat motionless upon its perch with its toes completely covered with its fluffy feather skirt. Suddenly its eyes open, the round pupils enlarging or contracting with great rapidity as if adjusting themselves to the amount of light. When the owl winks it is like a moon in eclipse, so large are the eyes, and so entirely are they obscured by the lids which seem like circular curtains. When it yawns, its wide bill absurdly resembles a human mouth, and the yawn is very human in its expression. It then stretches its wings and it is astonishing how long this wing can be extended below the feet. It then begins its toilet. It dresses its feathers with its short beak, nibbling industriously in the fluff; it scratches its under parts and breast with its bill, then cleans the bill with its foot, meanwhile moving the head up and down as if in an attempt to see better its surroundings.

The owls are loyal lovers and are said to remain mated through life, the twain being very devoted to their nests and nestlings. Sometimes the two wise-looking little parents sit together on the eggs, a most happy way to pass the wearisome incubation period.

The screech owls winter in the north and they are distinctly foresighted in preparing for winter. They have often been observed catching mice, during the late fall, and placing them in some hollow tree for cold storage, whence they may be taken in time of need. Their food consists to some extent of insects, especially night-flying moths and beetles, also caterpillars and grasshoppers. However, the larger part of their food is mice; sometimes small birds are caught and the English sparrow is a frequent victim. Chickens are rarely taken, except when small, since this owlet is not as long as a robin. It swallows its quarry as whole as possible, trusting to its inner organs to do the sifting and selecting. Later it throws up pellets of the indigestible bones, hair, etc. By the study of these pellets, found under owl roosts, the scientists have been able to determine the natural food of the bird, and they all unite in assuring us that the screech owl does the farmer much more good than harm, since it feeds so largely upon creatures which destroy his crops.

Lesson XXV

The Screech Owl

Leading thought—This owl is especially adapted to get its prey at night. It feeds largely on field mice, grasshoppers, caterpillars and other injurious insects and is therefore the friend of the farmer.

Method—This lesson should begin when the children first hear the cry of this owl; and an owlet in captivity is a fascinating object for the children to observe. However, it is so important that the children learn the habits of this owl that the teacher is advised to hinge the lesson on any observation whatever made by the pupils, and illustrate it with pictures and stories.


1. Have you ever heard the screech owl? At what time of the day or night? Why was this? Why does the owl screech? How did you feel when listening to the owl's song?

2. Describe the owl's eyes. Are they adapted to see by night? What changes take place in them to enable the owl to see by daytime also? In what way are the owl's eyes similar to the cat's? Why is it necessary for an owl to see at night? Are the owl's eyes placed so that they can see at the sides like other birds? How does it see an object at the sides or behind it?

3. Note the owl's beak. For what purpose is a hooked beak? How does the owl use its beak? Why do we think that the owl looks wise?

4. Describe the feet and claws of the screech owl. What are such sharp hooked claws meant for? Does an owl on a perch always have three toes directed forward and one backward?

5. Describe the colors of the screech owl. Are all these owls of the same color? How do these colors protect the bird from its enemies?

6. How is the owl's plumage adapted to silent flight? Why is silent flight advantageous to this bird?

7. How does the owl's ear differ from the ears of other birds? Of what special advantage is this? As the owl hunts during the night, what does it do in the daytime? How and by what means does it hide itself?

8. Where does the screech owl make its nest? Do you know anything about the devotion of the parent owls to each other and to their young? How many eggs are laid? What is their color? At what time of year do the little owls appear?

9. Where does the screech owl spend the winter? What do the screech owls feed upon? Do they chew their food? How do they get rid of the indigestible portion of their food? How does this habit help the scientists to know the food of the owls?

10. How does the screech owl work injury to the farmers? How does it benefit them? Does not the benefit outweigh the injury?

11. How many other kinds of owls do you know? What do you know of their habits?

Supplementary reading—Audubon Educational Leaflets, Nos. 22, 12, 14; Second Book of Birds, Miller, Chap. 32-3; Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge; "The Boy and Hushwing," Kindred of the Wild; "Koos, Koos, Koos" in Wilderness Ways; Wings and Fins, chap. 19; Heart of Oak Books, Vol. 4, p. 51; The Aziola, Shelley; American Birds, Finley.



We are two dusky owls, and we live in a tree;

Look at her,—look at me!

Look at her,—she's my mate, and the mother of three

Pretty owlets, and we

Have a warm cosy nest, just as snug as can be.

We are both very wise; for our heads, as you see,

(Look at her—look at me!)

Are as large as the heads of four birds ought to be;

And our horns, you'll agree,

Make us look wiser still, sitting here on the tree.

And we care not how gloomy the night-time may be;

We can see,—we can see

Through the forest to roam, it suits her, it suits me;

And we're free,—we are free

To bring back what we find, to our nest in the tree.


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