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Named after the American naturalist and explorer, Robert Kennicott, Megascops kennicottii is commonly known as the Western screech owl, and it is very common in many parts of Western North America. These owls will nest and hunt in a variety of climates and terrain as long as there is food available. At one time, the Western and the Eastern screech owl were considered the same species, but today they are considered to be two distinct species.
The Western screech owl is not as large as many other types of owls. It can range from 8 to 11 inches (20.3 to 28 cm) in length, with a wingspan up to 24 inches (61 cm). Females are typically the larger of the species, and they can weigh roughly 9 ounces (255 grams).
This owl's flat face and bright yellow eyes are surrounded by black circles, and its curved beak is typically black or dark gray. The Western screech owl has a round head with tufts on its ears. When raised, these stick straight up and resemble a cat's ears.
Although most of these owls are gray or grayish-brown, some varieties are reddish-brown. The gray variety of the Western screech owl, which seems to prefer to nest in hardwoods, has a lighter colored underside with vertical streaks and markings, usually on the lower belly. The reddish-brown or rust-colored variety seems to prefer areas where pine trees are abundant and are typically concentrated in parts of Alaska and Canada.
When nesting, these owls can almost always be found in tree cavities. These cavities are usually either natural hollows or homes abandoned by other animals, such as woodpeckers. Sometimes, however, Western screech owls be found nesting in barns, cliffs, or nesting boxes.
During mating season, the male Western screech owl will call to the female, and she will call back. When they get close enough, they will primp and clean each others feathers and nibble at each others beaks. Scientists believe these types of birds will stay together for life, but they have been known to take a different mate if one disappears or is killed.
The female Western screech owl will lay two to five white eggs in the nest. Some evidence suggests that the farther north the pair is, the more eggs the female will lay. Eggs are lain a day or two apart, and the female begins to incubate after laying the first one. During this time, she alone typically incubates the eggs until they are hatched. The male spends his time aggressively defending the territory, hunting, and bringing food to the female.
After a little less than a month, white or gray owlets emerge. As they grow older, their light feathers gradually are replaced by the bird's adult feathers. Streaks and markings will also gradually start to show up as they age. They venture out of the nest about a month after hatching, but will still be looked after by both parents for up to six weeks longer. After this time, they are typically left to their own devices to find food.
Like all owls, the Western screech owl is a nocturnal hunter, typically starting just after sunset and returning to its roost before sunrise. Because of its keen eyesight at night and its nearly noiseless flight, these owls can easily spot prey and snatch it up quickly. These owls will usually take whatever is available, depending on the time of year and the area. Common food includes mice, squirrels, small birds, large insect, and even crayfish.
Distinguishing a Western screech owl from an Eastern screech owl can be quite difficult in the areas where their habitats overlap, like Colorado and Texas. Besides the areas that they occupy, they can be identified by their bill colors, calls, and mating habits. The Eastern screech owl has a greenish or yellowish beak, and a distinct call. Instead of a series of sharp whistles and hoots like its cousin in the west, it typically lets out one long, shrill wail. Also, instead of calling, male Eastern screech owls will bob and dance for the females during mating season.