Western Screech Owl

The Western Screech Owl is a small North American owl, very similar in appearance to the Eastern Screech Owl. Densely spread throughout their habitat, many myths and legends have developed around them since their hoots from the dark often give an eerie feeling in the minds of the listeners.

Western Screech Owl Scientific Classification

Megascops kennicottii

Western Screech Owl

Western Screech Owl

Physical Description: What do they look like

Size: Average is 22 cm (8.7 in), with the wingspan length being 55 cm (22 in).

Weight: They are light-weight with the adults weighing between 88 and 22 g [average weight 143 g (5 oz)].

Plumage/Feathers: All morphs (viz. Mexican, gray Pacific, brown Pacific, Mojave and Great Plains) have dark gray or brown plumage with streaks on the underparts.

Head: Large and roundish head with ear tufts, protruding out above the eyes.

Eyes: Round, large eyes with a black eyeball bordered by yellow.

Bills: Yellowish to dark beaks resembling a sharp nose, rendering a humanoid face.

Feet: Large feet with streaked plumage patterns.

Sexual Dimorphism: Females are larger than the males.


Western Screech Owls live for 1-8 years (longest recorded being 13 years in the wild and 19 years in captivity).

Western Screech Owl Range

Western Screech Owl Range

Distribution & Habitat: Where do they live

They are found in the tropical, subtropical and temperate mountainous forests, countryside fields, gardens and parks, deserts, and shrublands of the USA, Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

Classification of Species

Nine subspecies of the Western Screech Owl have been identified:

  1. Megascops kennicottii aikeni
  2. Megascops kennicottii bendirei
  3. Megascops kennicottii cardonensis
  4. Megascops kennicottii kennicottii
  5. Megascops kennicottii macfarlanei
  6. Megascops kennicottii suttoni
  7. Megascops kennicottii vinaceus
  8. Megascops kennicottii xantusi
  9. Megascops kennicottii yumanensis

Differences: The Western vs. the Eastern Screech Owls

Both the Owls were considered to be the same species until the 1980s because of similarity in their physical characteristics. However, they differ from each other by their voices. Unlike the easterners, the westerners wouldn’t emit screeches, but low-pitched whistles that speed up towards the end (called ‘bouncy double trill’).

Western Screech Owl Images

Western Screech Owl Images

Sounds and Calls: How Do they Communicate

Western screech owls rarely emit screeching sounds. The males emit soft trills (“hoo-hoo”) especially during mating and nesting seasons, indicating territorialism, and a ‘secondary’ call with rapid bursts. They also give out a prolonged “cr-r-oo-oo-oo-oo” while greeting, or sharp barks when excited.
[Recordings: Listen to the calls’ audio clips here.]

Video: Western Screech Owl Calling


The WSO is active at dusk, night, or near dawn, and are almost blind in the sunlight, with their activities beginning 20-30 minutes after sundown. However, the subspecies in the west of Washington are sometimes active on cloudy days. Mostly found on treetops, they also forage on the ground. These birds do not migrate.

Being opportunistic predators, they perch on tree branches, waiting patiently for an unsuspecting prey, and once found, swooping down upon it. They eat small prey on the spot, carrying away larger ones for later.

Western Screech Owl Pictures

Western Screech Owl Pictures

Western Screech Owls

Western Screech Owls

With excellent senses of sound and vision, they can easily locate the prey. These birds tend to exhibit aggressive behavior. Being aggressive by nature, they would attack humans while defending a nest site or capture a grouse for feeding their young.

When threatened, the owl would stand erect, holding their ear-tufts up, slicking down their feathers and drawing them around their beaks forward to scare away the predators. They would also squint their eyes swaying to and fro, imitating the movement of a branch.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Monogamous by nature, WSOs pair before breeding, engaging in long-term bonds. Before mating, the male emits a mating call perching on a branch with the female, sitting close by, to which the latter usually reciprocates.

As secondary cavity nesters, they build nests in nest boxes, natural cavities, or those deserted by other birds at the height of 5 to 30 feet. They prefer breeding in open or mixed woods by forest edge.

Western Screech Owl Nest

Western Screech Owl Nest

Babies Western Screech Owl

Babies Western Screech Owl

Video: Family of Western Screech Owls in the Nest


Typically, a pair hatches a single brood per year. Females would lay the eggs (clutch size 3-5) inside the nest-hole without adding any material to it. During the 33-34 day incubation period, the father owl brings food for the female.

The mother would brood the hatchlings for about three weeks, while the father gathers food for them. After about a 7-10 days, the young owlets leave their nest to explore only the nearby trees until they can fly (that takes around five weeks time).

Western Screech Owl Size

Western Screech Owl Size


  1. The tips of the flight feathers are serrated for which the flying noise is muffled, allowing them to attack the prey quietly.
  2. They developed an acute hearing sense, which helps them trace mammals even under heavy vegetation or thick snow.
  3. The large eyes assist them to pick up even small movements of prey and predators in the dark.
  4. Their cryptic coloration helps them blend with the tree branches (called ‘tree branch mimic’) is a kind of natural camouflage.
Blind Western Screech Owl

Blind Western Screech Owl

Diet: What Does a Western Screech Owl Eat

Western screech owls consume fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, invertebrates, and even mammals that are larger to them. Their most favorite items include deer mice, rats, small birds, large insects, and occasionally, Mallard ducks, cottontail rabbits, and fledglings of local birds.

Western Screech Owl Bird

Western Screech Owl Bird

Video: Western Screech Owl Preying


Predators: What Eats the Western Screech Owl

Their most common enemies include cats, minks, weasels, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and other birds.

Conservation Status

Considering their population abundance, the IUCN 3.1 has categorized them under ‘Least Concerned’.

Western Screech Owl Flying

Western Screech Owl Flying

Western Screech Owl Feather

Western Screech Owl Feather

Interesting Facts

  • They are the smallest owls of North America.
  • The Northern populations are noticeably larger than their Southern counterparts.
  • The mortality rate in baby WSOs is 70% since they are frequently hit by cars in the night.
  • ‘Zeus’ is a rescued, blind WSO at the Wildlife Learning Center, Sylmar, California. The bird has become famous because its eyes resemble the starry night sky with twinkling galaxies.






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