Screech-Owls – All about them and the sounds they make

Ever wondered about the Screech-Owl? How many are there, where do they live and do they really screech? Read on to find out all about these fabulous owls.


The Screech-Owl belongs to the Strigidae family of ‘typical owls’. Within that family, they are part of the Megascops genus. There are 22 owls in this genus and 3 of them are present in the United States. So let’s take a look at them first.

Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio)


Photo by Wolfgang Wander

The Eastern Screech-Owl is a thickset owl that has ear tufts that can be raised or flat. It has a gray or red morph, both of which offer excellent camouflage. It is nocturnal and so very difficult to see. In the day it likes to roost in tree cavities.

Photo by Greg Hume


  • Length: 6.3-9.8 in (16-25 cm)
  • Weight: 4.3-8.6 oz (121-244 g)
  • Wingspan: 18.9-24.0 in (48-61 cm)

This is a small owl. If you think of that length, 25cm is about the size of a standard business envelope. It weighs about the same as a roll (40 coins) of nickels.


As the name suggests and this Range Map shows, the Eastern Screech-Owl is found in eastern and central parts of continental America. It is resident and non-migratory, preferring forested areas near to water.


As expected, this bird of prey looks for small mammals, usually rodents and will also eat songbirds. To supplement its diet, it will also eat vertebrates and invertebrates preferring insects, worms and crayfish.

Western Screech-Owl (Megascops kennicottii)


Fairly similar to the gray morph Eastern Screech-Owl, the Western species is small and only gray. There is no red morph. Patterns are intricate and means it is well camouflaged. It is nocturnal and roosts during the day in cavities and/or nest boxes.


  • Length: 7.5-9.8 in (19-25 cm)
  • Weight: 3.5-10.8 oz (100-305 g)
  • Wingspan: 21.6-24.4 in (55-62 cm)

The Western Screech-Owl is pretty much the same size as its Eastern cousin. To put some perspective on this, this owl has a wingspan of about 3 volleyballs.


As the Range Map shows and the name suggests, the Western Screech-Owl is resident on the west coast of the U.S, pretty much taking up where the Eastern Screech-Owl’s range ends. It extends up into Canada and Alaska.


The diet of the Western Screech-Owl is more adaptable than the Eastern. It will also eat small mammals and birds. However, it does eat more insects than the Eastern and those birds that are resident in the southern deserts do eat more invertebrates than those in northern areas.

Whiskered Screech-Owl (Megascops trichopsis)


Photo by Alan Schmierer

The Whiskered Screech-Owl is similar to the Western but if you look carefully, it has more black in its patterning. The bill is paler but they are easy to get confused.


  • Length: 6.3-7.9 in (16-20 cm)
  • Weight: 3-3.5 oz (84-98 g)
  • Wingspan: 17.3 in (44 cm)

The Whiskered Screech-Owl is generally smaller than the Eastern and Western Screech-Owls at the equivalent of 4 AA batteries.


The Whiskered Screech-Owl is a Central American bird and only rarely visits Arizona.


The Whiskered Screech-Owl predominately eats arthropods which are invertebrates with an external skeleton. It watches from a perch and dives on prey in the leaf litter. It will then crush the animal and rip any hard shell or pieces off before eating.

Sounds of the Screech-Owl

As the Eastern and Western Screech-Owls are really the only common Screech-Owls in the U.S., we will now look at the sounds that they make.

The call

The Eastern Screech-Owl’s most common song is a persistent trill:

Eastern Screech-Owl audio by Michael & Katie LaTour

The Western Screech-Owl call is quite different and is referred to as the bouncing ball song.

Western Screech-Owl audio by Lance A. M. Benner

These calls are those most likely to be heard.

The whinny call

Eastern Screech-Owl audio by Lance A. M. Benner
Western Screech-Owl audio by Lance A. M. Benner

The whinny call of both owls are a deliberate communication, usually a female calling to the male. They are similar but distinct.

The alarm call

Eastern Screech-Owl audio by Russ Wigh
Western Screech-Owl audio by Lance A. M. Benner

The alarm calls of the owls are quite different with the Western call being more high pitched.

What do the calls mean?

Scientists who analyze vocalizations usually categorize calls and sounds. Here are some of the categories for our Screech-Owls.

CallEastern Screech-OwlWestern Screech-Owl
general songmonotonic trillbouncing ball and double trill
territorial defensewhinnybark
juvenile begging or femaleraspwhinny
agitation/alarmrepetitive screechrepetitive ascending screech

Non-verbal sounds

The owls also snap their bills and sometimes hiss in response to some interference or intruder.

Why are Screech-Owls called Screech-Owls?

I know, you hear the name Screech-Owl and you expect the thing to be shrieking like murder, but these calls are pretty benign. The name Screech-Owl comes from the alarm calls the birds make, which could be the whinny or alarm call.

If you think about early ornithologists naming these birds, they would have found them at night and likely surprised them. Hence, the sounds they would have heard would have been an angry, alarmed owl. If you have ever come across a surprised owl, you will know what I mean.


So there it is, a small, inoffensive owl named as if it is some terrifying predator that howls bloody murder in the night. Doesn’t seem quite fair but that is how it goes in birding. Names often don’t fit the bird.

We hope you enjoyed reading about and listening to the Screech-Owls. Let us know if you have any questions.


What time of day are Screech Owls most active?

They are nocturnal but are active at dawn and dusk. That is the best time for us to see them. However, if you are in a forested area, always be looking out for holes in trees, you never know what you might see.

What is the largest screech owl?

The White-throated Screech Owl is the largest species but it is only a couple of centimeters larger than the Eastern.

Are Screech-Owls endangered?

No, the Eastern and Western Screech-Owl are classed as Least Concern.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Bald Eagle: all about our national bird and the sounds it makes

The Bald Eagle: all about our national bird and the sounds it makes

The Bald Eagle is one of the most iconic animals of the United States

What does a Hummingbird nest look like?

What does a Hummingbird nest look like?

These tiny birds are a huge favorite in the U

You May Also Like