How to Identify Eastern and Western Screech Owls

It’s difficult to ID Eastern and Western screech owl species—location is your best bet. Hear their call and learn about their size and nests.

What Do Screech Owls Look Like?

screech owlCourtesy Rick Hamilton
A red eastern screech owl

The eastern screech owl is gray, red or brown with heavy streaks below and darker bars on back. Look for small ear-like tufts on the head and a yellow bill.

award winning photos screech owl nesting in a dead saguaro cactusCourtesy Michael Benson/Country magazine
Western screech owl nesting atop a dead saguaro

The western screech owl looks similar but is almost always gray. These birds of prey have a square head and a dark gray bill.

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Screech Owl Size

eastern screech owlsCourtesy William Crotts
Eastern screech owls in a pine tree

A screech owl measures 8-1/2 inches long, or about the size of a beer glass, with a wingspan of 20 inches.

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Screech Owl Nest and Eggs

western screech owl, types of owlsCourtesy Jane Miller
Western screech owl

The female lays four to five white eggs in debris at the bottom of a nesting cavity. As they lose habitat to development, these owls need friendly places to call home. You may be able to attract them to your backyard with nest boxes. The birds will use the box for both roosting and nesting.

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Baby Screech Owl

baby screech owlCourtesy Gail Hall
Baby screech owls

If you yearn for your very own owl visitors, it is possible to attract them to your yard. Janet Kirk of Fort Myers, Florida, has proof that patience pays off. She put up a nest box four years ago, and a female eastern screech owl finally moved in. A month later, the owl’s mate showed up, and eventually Janet and her family watched three baby screech owls fledge.

Science writer and nature photographer David Shaw had a similar experience. “I watched as the pair of adult owls brought dead mice and voles, and occasional small birds to their growing chicks, which poked their fluffy, down-covered heads out into the open air.”

What Do Screech Owls Eat?

Their diet consists of insects, including worms and moths, small mammals, other birds, fish, spiders and reptiles. Screech owls are fond of water, so get in the habit of looking for one at your bird bath or water feature at night. You won’t hear the bird arrive because an owl’s feathers are specially made for silence—the super soft surface and fringed edges keep prey (and us) from hearing them swoop in.

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Screech Owl Sound

screech owlCourtesy Debbie Griffith
Eastern screech owls sound like horses with their whinnying call

Listen to the screech owl’s call to hear what these birds sound like. The eastern makes a tremulous wailing whinny or a long trill; the western makes an accelerating series of short whistles, or a double trill, like a bouncing ball.

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Habitat and Range Maps

Look for these owls in any kinds of woodlands, as well as parks, backyards and deserts.

Eastern:

Eastern Screech-Owl Bird Species

Western:

Western Screech-Owl Bird Species

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find he reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.