Creature of the Night

Eastern Screech Owl. Obviously, this is not the one I saw that night. Photo courtesy www.Unsplash.com

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In the late fall and winter of Southeast Missouri it’s often dark when I make the walk out behind our house to the studio where I do my weightlifting workouts.  Whereas I often don’t use a flashlight at night, there was a fog tonight that blocked out any light from the moon and stars.  Walking through the wet darkness I switched my workout log from one hand to the other so I’d be ready to open the gate to the deck.  The flashlight’s beam wavered to the left.

I caught a glimpse of something and turned the beam back on it.  It stood almost a foot above head-height and a scant three feet away from me.  Two big, yellow-rimmed eyes glared at me out of the night.

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I was surprised that eyes so sensitive in the darkness stared directly back at me, not even blinking in the bright flashlight’s beam.

I greeted the creature, “Well hello there, little screecher.  Did you come by to tell me thanks?”

Not wanting to disturb the beautiful robin-size bird, I moved on forward and up the stairs to the deck.  I opened the door to my studio and went in for my workout.

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A couple nights before, my cousin Bobby had come up from Arkansas to see me and we had gone into town so he could visit my mom.  It was dark by the time my car made its way along the road to my house.

Maybe it’s because I’m an outdoorsman or maybe it’s just because I’m country, but one leaf on the road ahead caught my eye and held it.  There was something about it…

Just before the shape disappeared below the line of my car hood, it turned its head to look directly at me.  I hit my brakes.

We weren’t going too fast but still I had to be over the little owl before the vehicle came to a complete halt.  I listened for thumping or scratching as I backed up but heard nothing.

The screech owl was in the same spot when I got far enough back to see it, but quickly took wing and flew into the woods.

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It had been only a week before that Annie and I were headed to town when, in almost the same spot, we saw another screech owl that hadn’t been so lucky.  I stopped and moved the frail form off to the side so nobody would smash it, meaning to call our area conservation agent to see if there was any chance I could get permission to have the bird mounted so I could donate it to the Bootheel Youth Museum.

Then I promptly forgot about it until just now.

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Most people have no idea how common screech owls, or any owls for that matter, are in our area.  Owls are almost completely nocturnal so are rarely glimpsed except when one of the bigger species is caught in car headlights flaring up from the side of the road.  In that case, most people can’t even tell what they are.

Because they are about the size of a mourning dove, and their color and pattern remind one of the bark of a tree, on a walk in the woods we can pass right by a screech owl and never see it, especially if it is sleeping in its bedroom.  They nest in hollows in trees often originally carved out by woodpeckers.

Unlike their name, screech owls don’t screech at all.  According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, their call is a soft, mournful whinny.  I don’t know if I would describe it that way, but I can’t come up with a better way to put it.  Actually, that’s a whole lot better than the way it was described to me as a kid, when some adult told me they sound like a woman being murdered and screaming in horror.  You’ll forgive me if that description didn’t instill me with an instant desire to go outside at night to hear one.

Later, when I took up deer hunting, I started to hear them often in the evening stillness and early dawn.  I recently had one call within just a few yards of my ladder stand and the sound isn’t frightening at all.  Of course, I don’t go out in the woods expecting it to be a house of horrors…more like a second home.  From that aspect, the little screecher is just another of my friends gracing me with its song.

Screech owls have ear tufts like those we usually associate with their much larger great horned cousin but they can raise and lower the tufts so you may or may not identify them by that distinctive Halloween owl silhouette.

The MDC says they prey on, “beetles, grasshoppers, moths, mice, shrews, moles, crayfish, fish, frogs and small birds” and use their exceptional senses of hearing and sight to home in on their targets.  Many eastern screech owls have adapted to living in the city, where they have adopted a taste for house sparrows and house mice.  Eating those two pests alone is enough to make me a big fan of them.

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It was deadlift night so I finished my workout in relatively short order and stepped back outside.  As I opened the deck gate I shined the light back to the corner post.  The screech owl was gone.

Truthfully, other than time and proximity, I have no reason to believe it was the same one I avoided hitting with my car that night.  But, in a way, I kind of wanted to believe it was.

I spoke quietly into the darkness, “You’re welcome.  I hope you catch a fat mouse tonight.”

 

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(above) An Eastern Screech Owl whinnies and trills.

(below) Two of the three color phases of the eastern screech owl – (left) gray and red.

 

(above)  You can imagine how hard it is to notice a screech owl in the wild.  Photo courtesy www.unsplash.com.

(below) I captured this little screecher on one of my game cams a few nights after I saw the one on the fence post.  It’s close enough that it actually could be the same one.

 

 

4 Comments on "Creature of the Night"

  1. Enjoyed. Thanks for sharing.

  2. When you think about it they are weird looking but they are also quite beautiful. Always nice to encounter one though.

    • They probably think we are weird looking too. 🙂 Seeing them “in person” you get a much better look at them. They really are beautiful.

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