A Very Urban Owl

Owls are found worldwide in a huge range of habitats from rainforests to grasslands to wooded areas to tundra.” (www.enchantedlearning.com 2009)

The quote above is representative of a common misconception about owls. Few people, including some very experienced birders, realize that certain species of owls inhabit urban and semi-urban areas and may even frequent your own backyard. This is the story of one such owl. 

When I’m not staying up half the night writing about birds, I run bi-monthly home delivery routes for the Schwan’s Food Company. Since I see my regular customers 26 times a year, we come to know one another quite well. Once they learn that I am a birder, I become the Roger Tory Peterson of frozen food sales, and I often find myself answering their questions about a strange bird they’ve encountered.

One afternoon more than three years ago, I pulled up in front of a customer’s home in Eugene, Oregon. The woman and her 10-year-old son were in their driveway talking to a neighbor. All three of them were gazing intently at something on the overhanging roof that covers their porch and part of their semi-circle drive. As I approached them, I asked the young boy what they were looking at. “We have an owl,” he replied. I asked, “Do you know what kind it is?” “No,” he responded. I took a quick glance up at the owl, which was sitting in plain view on top of the main pillar that supported the roof. “That’s a Western Screech-Owl,” I told him. At that point, his mother and the neighbor joined the conversation, realizing that I might be able to offer more information about their resident owl.

I learned that this eight-inch tall nocturnal bird of prey had been roosting atop this stone pillar for weeks. I explained that Western Screech-Owls are often more abundant in urban and semi-urban areas than in rural woodlands. Being much smaller, screech-owls tend not to fare as well in rural areas, where the much larger and highly aggressive Great Horned Owls rule the night.

Then I pointed out the carpet of “pellets” below the owl’s favorite perch. Owls typically consume their prey fur, bones, and all. Since owls cannot completely digest the non-fleshy parts of their prey, they must regurgitate compacted pellets that are made up of all the undigested parts (fur, bones, etc.). By dissecting these pellets, one can determine what a particular owl has been eating. There were dozens of pellets on the ground at the base of the pillar. I tore a few of them apart and found that they were riddled with beetle casings and devoid of any other recognizable prey remnants. A more complete discussion of an owl’s digestive system and how they form pellets can be found at: http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Physiology&title=Digestion

This Western Screech-Owl, photographed at Eugene, Oregon 7 February 2009, sleeps away the daylight hours. A couple of whistled imitations might cause it to briefly open its eyes and, perhaps, even call back quietly a few times before it closes its eyes again. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Ever since this initial encounter, a Western Screech-Owl has occupied this pillar whenever I’ve visited this home. On occasion, I’ve seen a second owl hidden away on the main beam that supports the roof. The residents told me that they once had seen an entire family group, including several fuzzy owlets, on the lawn in their backyard just after dark.

Both Eastern and Western Screech-Owls readily respond to whistled imitations of their calls. During my 30 years in Oregon, I’ve whistled up Western Screech-Owls in nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in. In the late 1970’s David Fix and I were doing some owling for our sector of the Portland Christmas Bird Count circle (well within the city limits). In the course of about three hours, we called up 26 Western Screech-Owls at various sites within two miles of my house in the Eastmoreland neighborhood. At that evening’s countdown, even the veteran birders were incredulous to learn that so many owls might be found right in town.


This sounds like my story. I live in the garden Home area of Portland. In late May I noticed a small owl perched under the eaves of the front porch atop a stone pillar. He appears to hunt all night and sleep during the day. He is friendly and tolerant of humans. If anyone is interested I have photos of him. His name is Hooty. Does anyone know how long they stay in one location? He does a great job of keeping the squirrel population in check and protecting my house from crazy robins and towhees that like to fight with their reflection in my windows all spring.


- you are blessed – and have acsmhplicoed so much at a young age. Don’t trivialize it. You are amazing. The best of your life is now and still coming. 30 is beautiful on you!


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