Western Screech Owl – Final Chapter

By Dan Weisz

The Babies Have Fledged!

This is the final photo series about the Western Screech Owls in my nest box. Western Screech Owls are common throughout the Foothills (as well as the western United States) so this behavior has been repeating itself in all of our neighborhoods.

Both Western Screech Owl babies have now fledged and left the nest. The family is now moving around their territory in the desert and spending their days perched away from the nest box, in parts unknown to me. I wish them well and hope that the parents, who mate for life, return to my nest box next spring.

So here is what transpired: On Thursday, the owlets continued to observe the world from inside the safety of their nest box.

A big yawn from one owlet.

Another look at both owlets trying to share the space. Once again, the second owl squeezed its way in by pushing up from underneath its sibling.

One of the parents waited to deliver a caterpillar to the young. I have not been able to figure out what kind of caterpillar this is but after checking with several sources, have learned this is something called (ironically) an Owlet Moth. The moths are part of the genus called “Noctua” which is Latin for “little Owl”. I’m sure that their name was derived from their nighttime behavior rather than the fact that some owls will eat them. Still, a funny coincidence here. The larva cutworms do damage to roots and young shoots.

The next evening (Friday), mom was out on a low cholla perch early.

She then roused, stretched, and then began a long ‘warble’ holding her wings over her head before flying off. Her behavior that night was very different. She was very active, flying around the area constantly and calling often.

On Saturday I realized that the mother owl’s behavior Friday evening was due to the fact that one owlet had fledged the night before and was probably out nearby but with very limited flight skills. How do I know this? Check out the following photo. All of the following pictures were taken within a short span on Saturday evening. Shortly after sunset, we saw this in the backyard:

The above photo shows the mother on the left and one fledgling on the right. Note that the streaky breast and black facial disc that the mother has are both missing from the young owl. Its feathering is uniformly barred. As we watched the baby owl, its behavior told us that this was its second night out of the nest. It was able to hop well and make very short flights. That’s what told us it had spent the entire previous (Friday night) out of the nest and had probably left the nest Thursday evening. That would explain the mother owl’s strange behavior Friday evening.

Here’s a close-up of the young western screech owl on the mesquite branch surrounded by mistletoe.

Here you can see that the owl readily ‘flew” over to another perch but then spent its time napping much like it did in the nest box, just waiting for dinner to magically appear. Mom was a little way off in the desert at this time.

We didn’t know about the second owlet but when we saw mom near the first bird and at the same time heard the second adult owl calling from the neighbor’s porch, we quickly walked over to investigate. There, atop a porch pillar, was the second owlet! That meant that the second bird had left the nest Friday night at some point and that both baby owls were out of the nest! (Again, no vertical stripes or dark facial disc on this young western screech owl)

This baby stared non-stop towards the nearby adult who was perched on the front porch light. Suddenly the little bird attempted to fly, fluttering helplessly against the house and landing on the ground. This was the first full night this little bird was out of the nest and clearly not capable of full flight. We quickly walked away in order not stress the birds and to allow the little one to continue to learn on its own. From a distance, we heard the adult calling vigorously. We saw that this bird had walked along the porch for a while, and then hopped or climbed up onto a chair on the porch closer to where its parent was.

We left the birds to their own. About an hour later, I stepped out onto the back porch and saw one adult bring food to the youngster that was near the back yard. The prey, a bird, may have been a house finch. It would provide for a very filling meal for the young. The young owl was nowhere to be seen, perched in a good, safe hiding place close by. The parent knew where it was though and I left them alone at that time.

This is the process the birds followed last year. They leave the nest some time during the night. The next night (their first full night out of the nest) they clumsily walk, hop and flutter around building capacity and skills. By the second full night, they are fliers. Saturday night we saw that one owlet was already flying and the second owlet was just getting his wings and skills ready. By Sunday night, the family was nowhere to be found. That good news meant they were off on the next chapter of their lives.

The parents will continue to feed the young while they develop their hunting skills. Juvenile Western Screech owl may remain close to their parents for about five weeks following fledging. Then, they begin to wander more and more outside the ranges of their parents and roost farther away. They will create their own territories and begin their adult life.

Hopefully we’ll see the parents return next spring. By February, I’ll be listening for their calls letting me know what their plans for the season will be!

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