Even though the threat of snowfall continues around New York Harbor during early March, the biological urge to make babies is strong among Eastern screech owls. Come March, the birds begin courting and nesting.
The birds are bringing back romance to the woods. Screech owls respond to increasing daylight with the urge to create new screech owls. During late winter and early spring, both male and female owls will renew bonds.
Screech owls tend to be monogamous and remain together for life, though the Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests some males will mate with two different females. “The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.” Even for owls, relationships can be complex.
Listen closely at night, you might hear a male begin to sing near a nest site to attract an interested female. Although their name suggests their voice sounds like a screech, the owls don’t screech at all. Their voice sounds more like a whinny of a tiny horse. A long, low, trembling whistled trill sound. A weird and mysterious love song to hear late at night.
But it’s this spooky song that helps people to tell screech owls reside in a neighborhood. The birds are small, in fact smaller than a city pigeon, nocturnal and hard to see. Their grey or reddish plumage blends in perfectly with the wooded shady suburbs and city parks where they spend their days silently roosting in tree holes. Their shrill calls are the only noticeable hint screech owls might a neighbor.
Authors Chris Fisher and Andy Bezener in their classic book, Birds of New York City, first printed in 1998, tell us that while “strolling through the woodland parks of Staten Island or the North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary during an early spring evening, a person with a keen ear might hear the distinctive whistled quavering voice of the Eastern screech-owl.” The owl has a long history in New York City. Screech owls can also be heard and occasionally seen in Central Park in Manhattan, as well as in New Jersey, where it’s a common and widespread resident of the Garden State.
As pairs get reacquainted, a male will usually provide food to a female to help advertise his strength and overall health, usually mice or other rodents, or large insects such as moths, crickets, and beetles. Other courtship rituals include owls preening (cleaning each others’ feathers) several times and a male affectionately crouching, bowing and blinking to a female.
Screech owls are cavity nesters. A male will seek abandoned woodpecker holes, natural hollows in trees, or a manufactured nest box to raise a family. Since there are not many big trees with holes around New York Harbor and urban sprawl is destroying the species’ valuable habitat, nest boxes in deciduous or mixed woodlands are ideal.
A pair will often reuse the same nest site each year or find another in the same area. A nest inside the cavity is made of dry grasses and almost always lined with feathers.
When the female is ready, she will lay between 2 to 8, usually 4 to 5, white eggs. Mostly the female does incubation for around 26 days. The male will bring food to the female during incubation. They will only raise one brood per year.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the oldest recorded Eastern Screech-Owl was at least 14 years, 6 months old when it was found in Ontario in 1968, the same province where it had been banded in 1955.” On average, screech owls live for two to three years.