Owls!! We've Got Owls!

by Dan Weisz

Three years ago I purchased a nest box for Western Screech Owls.  This species lives in the woods and deserts of the Western United States including the Tucson foothills and we have heard them often during the summer nights over many years.  When I placed the nest box up, I thought there was a chance some bird might move in. Although it’s taken three years, we are thrilled.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been hearing two owls hooting around 4:00 in the morning.  Because it was so regular, I knew they were close by.  Last week, when taking the garbage out just after sunset, I noticed this little one poking her head out of the nest box.  Sunset means it’s time to wake up!!

And we’ve got eye contact!   Look at the shape of the beak!  The owl’s beak is vertically placed so its vision isn't obstructed by a horizontally placed beak.

After a while, I went into the house.  As I was chatting with my wife about the owl, I noticed something in the dark at our bird bath.  The owl had chosen to drink before heading out on its nightly hunt. I was able to get a few photos before it flew off.  I did use a flash for these shots and the owl was very cooperative.  While it was watching me work, I heard a second owl and saw one fly into a nearby mesquite.  As the male had now joined his mate, the two then flew off into the night.

You can easily see the black feathers which mark the owl’s facial disc.  Owls have very strong hearing and those specialized feathers help move all sound towards the owl’s ears.  The sound of a Western Screech Owl is often described as a bouncing ball.  To listen to a one, click here http://tinyurl.com/m4z7xry  It may help to enhance the mood while you are listening to turn off all of the lights or go on the back porch after dark to get the full picture!  Or maybe, just close your eyes while listening.

Looking back...

We left for a short weekend trip and when we returned home, look who appeared again just before sunset!  Her right eye is in sunlight and the pupil is a bit smaller than her left eye’s pupil, which is in the shadowed side of her face.  Her feathered ear tufts were “down” tonight as opposed to those in the first photos.  

A profile shot shows the owl’s beak low on its face.  The beak is pretty long but covered with bristly feathers. Those feathers are sensory in nature to protect the owl's eyes while feeding young or while killing or eating prey. And the beak is low on its face to help keep the field of vision clear.

Western Screech Owls are nesting throughout our neighborhood and the Foothills areas.  We are fortunate to live in such a rich environment.


I purchased my box from the Wild Birds Unlimited store on Tanque Verde.  The nest box is made out of pine and has a three inch opening.  I mounted it about eight feet off the ground facing south by hanging it on a nail with a rope tied around the box for stability.  No other bird attempted to use this box over the years.

Nest boxes are also available from the Tucson Audubon Society located at 300 E. University Boulevard.  For information on their nest box program, see http://tucsonaudubon.org/our-work/conserving-birds/citizen-science/desert-nest-boxes/   

From their page:  Western Screech-Owl:Western Screech-Owls readily adopt nest boxes. Screech-owls are not too picky about placement of their boxes (sides of houses, in trees, etc.). Of course, shade is still a plus.