Owls aren't just a treat to look at, they also double up as a free form of rodent control. Read on to find out how to attract screech owls to your yard.
Although you may not ever have seen one, you’ve probably heard its call at night – the soft, mournful trill of a screech owl. (Not to be confused with the familiar hoot-hootof the much larger great horned owl.) And despite their name, they don’t screech. Their musical vocalizations sound more like a horse’s whinny or a rhythmic hoo-hoo-hoo.
Screech owls are adorably tiny, only about 7 to 10 inches tall from their curved talons to their feathered ear tufts.
Aside from their beautifully haunting calls, owls are a great bird to have in your garden because they don't require expensive bird seed, instead preferring to feast on the kind of creatures suburban homeowners like to shun. Screech owls eat rodents, moths and other insects, small lizards, snakes, and even other birds. These nocturnal hunters use their extraordinary hearing and night vision to detect prey, silently ambushing them thanks to specialized feathers that allow noiseless flight.
If you have lots of trees and open grassy areas nearby, attracting screech owls to your backyard shouldn't be too difficult.
They’re common throughout the U.S., with eastern screech owls found east of the Rockies and western screech owls to the west. While both western and eastern screech owls nest in tree cavities, eastern owls also readily nest in wooden boxes. (Western owls rarely so.)
By attracting a nesting pair with an owl box, you can enjoy daily sightings of these charismatic creatures and maybe even observe fuzzy, wide-eyed owlets leaving the nest.
These pint-sized predators rest in trees or tree cavities during the day, camouflaged by mottled gray or reddish-brown feathers. Photo: Pete Nuiji, Unsplash
How to build an owl box
The Audubon website publishes online instructions for how to build a proper screech owl box, and you can also find ready-made boxes for sale.
The entrance hole should be 3 inches in diameter, which is large enough for a screech owl while keeping out bigger predators. The box cavity should be 10 inches deep below the entrance hole, with a floor approximately 8 x 8 inches. An overhanging roof keeps out rainwater.
How to install an owl nesting box
- Screech owls don’t build nests but lay their eggs in the soft leaf litter of a tree cavity, so before hanging your box, put a handful of dry leaves or pine straw in the bottom.
- Hang it with galvanized screws at least 10 feet high on a straight or slightly forward-leaning tree trunk.
- Avoid facing the box north. An eastern or southern exposure is ideal.
- Don’t hang it too close to a deck or patio. Screech owls can be skittish of human activity when nesting and can even become aggressive.
When is the best time to put up an owl box?
Screech owls start scouting for nesting sites in late winter, so in the South hang your box by early January; farther north hang it by late February.
During the day you will likely see the female sitting in the entry hole.
When and how do screech owls nest?
Males will check out the nesting box and establish territories. As spring arrives, a female joins a male for courtship and mating and then takes up residence in the chosen nesting site – hopefully your owl box! – to lay her eggs. While she sits on her eggs for around 30 days, the male feeds her each evening, either at the entry hole or on a nearby perch.
When the chicks hatch, it takes another month for them to reach adult size, and during this time both parents leave the nest each evening to hunt and deliver food. During the day you will likely see the female sitting in the entry hole. As the chicks grow larger and more active, she will move out and roost on a nearby branch, like the male.
If you or your neighbors use rodent bait around your homes, do not attract owls with a nesting box.
The curious, fuzzy-headed chicks now take her place in the doorway, jostling for a view of the world and, as evening approaches, bobbing and chirping in anticipation of a breakfast delivery courtesy of mom and dad. By late May in the South and June farther north, the chicks are ready to leave the nest and take their first short, clumsy flights with encouragement from their parents.
Being able to watch this process unfold in your own backyard is a delight, and something you can look forward to each spring with a favorably sited owl box.
How to keep squirrels out of bird nest boxes
Sometimes a squirrel takes over an owl box, which may or may not prevent an owl from claiming it come spring. If it’s a problem, try removing your box in summer and fall and rehanging in early January. Swarming honeybees will sometimes occupy an owl box too. If this happens, call a licensed beekeeper or bee remover, who won’t kill the bees but safely remove them to a hive.
How to keep your feathered visitors safe
Before putting up an owl box, remember that owls need food and safety. If you or your neighbors use rodent bait around your homes, do not attract owls with a nesting box. Owls are often fatally poisoned when they eat poisoned mice or rats. To control rodents it’s far better – and safer for other wildlife – to remove rodent food sources like birdseed and pet food. Snap traps are another option that won’t harm owls.
Photos: Pam Penick