Arlington Discovery: Intriguing Screech Owls at Home in Suburbia

By Mary McLean

Mary McLean recounts a series of fascinating encounters with a family of Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) in early May 2018 at Tuckahoe Park in North Arlington. Mary and fellow master naturalists, park experts, and even animal welfare professionals provided thoughts and assistance to protect the offspring, and everyone learned something new about these (usually) nocturnal creatures along the way.

Early on May 6th, fellow ARMN member, Melanie La Force, contacted me with a wonderful find: baby gray Screech Owls roosting in Tuckahoe Park very close to the park’s trail. I arrived in a hurry, and we found three owlets at various levels on trees and on the ground; some without cover.

Not long after finding the babies, we looked straight up overhead from the trail to see almost silhouetted the singularly tiny, adult Screech Owl.

Photo of adult eastern screech owl sitting on a tree limb in front of green leaves in the background.
Photo courtesy of Kevin McLean.

The adult kept a close eye on the scene. While we stayed with the baby owls, the adult’s eyes went from person to person the entire time.

Screech Owls are rare to spot but both adults and juveniles would be very special bird identifications anywhere, especially in an urban park! They are small—only 7 to 9 inches on average as adults, and while mostly nocturnal, they can appear in twilight and during the day, as we witnessed here. They are also surprisingly comfortable in urban and suburban situations.

We conferred with fellow master naturalist, David Howell, as well as Alonso Abugattas, Arlington’s Natural Resource Manager, who agreed that the little ones were likely fledglings. Fledgling owls, known as “branchlets” or “branched out owls,” move from branch to branch once out of their usually high nest and before they can fly. At night they follow a parent’s call to get food, practicing locating prey by sound. Down on the ground they can get familiar with where they’ll find their prey and also learn to walk. During the day, a parent will watch over them. On hearing about the two near the ground Alonso suggested that maybe they were still learning. David Farner, Chief Naturalist and Manager at Fort C.F. Smith Park and a well-known bird resource, added that if they accidentally fell to the ground they would eventually figure out how to jump up to a higher location. With practice, those we saw will climb their way back up to a perch safely above the ground, even as one had already done.

Melanie and I worried that since two of the juvenile owls were perched so low they could be at risk from dogs. We both had regularly seen dogs running around the park off leash. On Alonso’s recommendation, Melanie called the Animal Welfare League of Arlington where volunteers connect concerned individuals to Arlington County’s Animal Control for an animal emergency like a potentially injured owl or off-leash animal. They came in 10 minutes! Officer Karina Swetnam and Officer Cliff Ballena told us they’d gotten a call about the owls earlier in the day and had already checked on them and they looked fine. When we told them about our concern regarding off-leash dogs, Officer Katrina contacted a raptor rehabilitator who took the two owlets from lower branches to keep them safe for a while. Now, the parent would just have one to watch.

The other Animal Control Office, Cliff, went over to where a group of people was playing in the park. There were two dogs off leash. While your dog may come when you call it, you may not be able to control its response to an unfamiliar animal like a baby owl, not to mention the danger to your dog from an owl’s talons! The protection of wild animals is yet one more reason to obey the law and keep dogs on a leash at all times in a public park.

The next day, Melanie said she’d spotted an owlet up in the canopy, and I was both happy that it was safe and exasperated I’d missed it yet again during my dog walk. But I did see a white pickup parked on the trail, with part of the trail on either side of the truck roped off. There was a special crew to take down dead trees (snags) that could fall on pedestrians who were on sidewalks and trails. We had seen the juveniles earlier in a pine snag that was marked with a white X for removal because it could fall on the trail.

So, I called the park manager, Kevin Stalica, who knew of the pine snag. He contacted the contractors to delay cutting it down. Kevin also contacted Alonso Abugattas about the situation and reported that Alonso said, “Once juvenile owls leave the nest out they stay out.”  So, if the nest was in this or another snag, the juveniles would likely be safe. We also learned that they perch on branches during the day as they snooze and grow more flight feathers, stronger muscles, and practice their flight skills.

A couple days later, we learned that Animal Control returned the two owlets to the park to let the fledglings learn from their parents and nature. At that point, David Howell saw them and was able to take some amazing photos, including both owl parents and all three of the owlets, safely up in the tree canopy together. Naturalist David Farner noted that while hunting is mainly done at night, with three hungry mouths to feed, both parents might hunt both day and night!

Photo of two eastern screech owls sitting in a tree obscured by tree leaves
Photo courtesy of David Howell.

David Howell also showed me his photos from Gulf Branch’s Migratory Bird Day Festival that was run by naturalists Jen Soles and Ken Rosenthal at Lacey Woods Park on May 12th. David captured photos of Screech Owl parents and they were not the same colors! One is a grey morph. The other is called a rufous (red) morph.

Photo of a juvenile eastern screech owl sitting in a tree on the left, and an adult eastern screech owl sitting in the tree to the right
Photo courtesy of David Howell.
Photo of an adult eastern screech owl sitting in a tree above two juvenile eastern screech owls
Photo courtesy of David Howell.

At Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s wonderful online guide “All About Birds”, I learned that there is also a Brown Morph for the (Northern) Eastern Screech Owl. It’s amazing how adaptable the owls are to different habitats! Here is a link to Cornell’s video of two Screech Owls during the day.

About a month after our first encounter, my “spice” Kevin and I took our dog, Declan, for his walk in the Tuckahoe Park woods early in the afternoon. There was a ruckus on the side of the trail. It was a mobbing of birds—and not the more familiar murder of crows badgering a hawk while escorting it around cawing incessantly in warning of the predator. Instead, a Blue Jay led a mixed flock of Robins, Cardinals, and Chickadees in protest of a Screech Owl! While we weren’t sure whether it was an adult or juvenile, the owl perched on a branch looked cool during the mobbing. Naturalist David Farner later explained that Screech Owls are a real threat to smaller song-birds, even as large as mockingbirds and thrushes, but not so much to Blue Jays.

Interestingly, the Screech Owl stretched its wings out again and again as if to say, “I’m bigger than I look.” Or maybe it was considering making a break for it. Ken Rosenthal noted that Screech Owls normally weigh twice as much as a Robin or a Blue Jay—the biggest in the mob—so maybe it stretched its wings to make sure they’d work. We later we surmised it must have been one of the owlets still learning how to be a predator.

While we wondered what it was doing awake at 1:00 in the afternoon or how it threatened the flock, a female Cardinal suddenly rushed towards the owl. It looked as if the owl fell from the branch but did not fly away. Instead, it hung upside down from the branch!

Photo of adult eastern screech owl hanging upside down off a tree limb
Photo courtesy of Kevin McLean.

The owl hung long enough for us to notice an odd angle of one wing. Concerned that its wing was injured, I called Animal Control with the report of an injured animal, to which they are known to respond promptly. But as I waited for Animal Control personnel to arrive, the owl suddenly flew off with the birds in pursuit into the upper canopy and out of sight. Shortly afterward the forest quieted down. So, whatever it did, the owl was no longer seen as a threat to the smaller-sized birds.

I contacted Animal Control to explain that the owl was evidently o.k. and the Animal Control Officer said she’d never heard of such behavior. Neither had Alonso, David Farner, or Ken Rosenthal. Farner did allow that,

The inverted owl is odd, but you watch birds a while and you’ll end up seeing all sorts of odd behavior that isn’t described. My guess would be that the owl got itself into a position it had never been in before and it took a bit of processing to figure out how to extricate itself. When I used to do hawk banding we would sometimes lay a bird on the ground on its back when we released. It would then take awhile for the bird to realize it was free and roll on its side or flip up so that it could fly away.

We all have more to learn about our Arlington birds!

It was a wonderful educational adventure with Screech Owls, for which I thank Melanie La Force (who credits the assistance of her friend’s dog, on leash!), as well as the experts, Alonso Abugattas, David Farner, Ken Rosenthal, and David Howell (including his priceless photos!). Finally, Arlington’s very helpful Animal Control Officers Karina Swetnam and Officer Cliff Ballena, for whom Arlington animals and people are forever in your debt. Also, special thanks to my “spice” Kevin McLean, for his help, photographs, and eternal patience.

One thought on “Arlington Discovery: Intriguing Screech Owls at Home in Suburbia

  1. Great story! That is really fascinating– thanks for writing it up.
    Interestingly enough, we have been hearing screech owls in Windy Run for the last few weeks. This is not common for Windy Run and is the first time we have heard them there (we have lived nearby for the last 10 years). I wonder if it is one of the young birds establishing territory? Last night we even thought we heard two of them, but could not confirm.
    Glenn Tobin

Leave a Reply