The Mournful Call of the Eastern Screech-Owl

The Mournful Call of the Eastern Screech-Owl

The sound was unmistakable and led me outdoors to face the thick woods across the road. In the advancing twilight the sound pierced the darkness again, and then again. The ghostly mournful wail, best described as a lonely whinny with “tremulous” descending pitch, could only come from an eastern screech-owl. Owls are known for their haunting nightly calls, but no species elicits as much emotion as the screech-owl. I was lucky to hear one call directly across the road from our house in Putnam.

Owls have held our imagination and respect for thousands of years. According to Laura Martin in her book “The Folklore of Birds,” in the Dordogne region of France, a cave wall painting dating to the early Paleolithic period depicts a pair of snowy owls. She also describes a Greek legend about owls helping the Greeks win a decisive victory over the Persians “when owls gathered in great flocks and descended on the enemy causing mass confusion and fear.”

The belief that owls are wise probably originated in the time of King Arthur, when the wizard Merlin was depicted with an owl on his shoulder. During the Middle Ages, owls became an important symbol of learning and intelligence that has continued with our modern-day children’s books. Many of you are probably familiar with the adventures of Pooh Bear and his friends Piglet, Tigger and of course Owl, who is frequently relied upon for thoughtful counsel (though also a bit scatter-brained and long-winded).

Some cultures put pictures and figures of owls on their houses during famines or epidemics in hopes their homes will be spared. The belief that owls have the power to ward off evil may have developed over thousands of years because of their nocturnal habits. Owls are at home in a world of darkness that is so alien and frightening to us.

When I encounter owls, it is usually because I hear their calls at night. I have seen barred owls and great horned owls during the day and participated in a Connecticut Audubon Society program of banding of northern saw-whet owls, but I can’t remember ever seeing a screech-owl in the wild.

My reliable sources of information about birds include the “Peterson Guide to Eastern Birds,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website All About Birds, and the Audubon Society. Here is how the eastern screech-owl is described from these sources:

  • The eastern screech-owl is a short, stocky bird, with a large head and almost no neck. Its wings are rounded; its tail is short and square. Pointed ear tufts are often raised, lending its head a distinctive silhouette.
  • Screech-owls can be either mostly gray or mostly reddish-brown. They are patterned with complex bands and spots that give the bird excellent camouflage against tree bark. Their eyes are yellow.
  • Screech-owls are active at night and are more often heard than seen—most bird watchers know this species only from its trilling or whinnying song. However, this cavity-roosting owl can be attracted to nest boxes or, if you’re sharp-eyed, spotted in daylight at the entrance to its home in a tree cavity.
  • Trees define the eastern screech-owl’s habitat. This owl is fairly common in most types of woods (evergreen or deciduous; urban or rural), particularly near water. It shuns treeless expanses of mountains or plains.
  • Both males and females sing. Their most common sounds are an even-pitched trill, often called a “bounce song” or tremolo; and a shrill, descending whinny. The tremolo is used by pairs or families to keep in touch and is 3–6 seconds long. The whinny is 0.5–2 seconds long and is used to defend territories. These two songs may be given one after the other. Mated pairs may sing to each other both day and night.
  • Screech-owls spend the day roosting in holes or in dense cover and become active at dusk. They hunt at dusk and at night, mostly by watching from a perch and then swooping down to take prey from the ground or from foliage. They also catch flying insects in the air. Like other owls, they can locate prey by sound as well as by sight.
  • They feed on mostly large insects and small rodents, and they have a varied diet of beetles, moths, crickets, and other large insects. They also catch mice and other rodents, shrews, sometimes bats, some small birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, earthworms, crayfish and many other small creatures.
  • The nest site is usually in a tree cavity, including natural hollows and abandoned woodpecker holes. They will also use artificial nest boxes. Their eggs are white with a clutch typically being 4-5 with a 26-day incubation that is mostly done by the female. The male brings food to female during incubation, and both bring food for young. The young owls leave the nest about 4 weeks after hatching and are fed by parents for some time thereafter.

I’ll be listening for more calls of the eastern screech-owl and hope they have taken up residence in the thick woods just across the road from our house in Putnam. We are fortunate to live in such a place as The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, so full of interesting and amazing cultural and natural resources. I hope you’ll join me and others as we enjoy it, care for it and pass it on.

Information for this column was sourced from “The Folklore of Birds” by Laura C. Martin, the “Guide to Eastern Birds” by Roger Tory Peterson, the Audubon Society website, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website All About Birds.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or by email at

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.



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