Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Little Hooter in SE Arizona

While trying to stir up a mobbing response from songbirds with my imitation of screech-owls at Florida Canyon this past Wednesday, I heard one give its bouncing ball song back at me. It's not rare that a screech-owl will sing back in the daytime, but they usually do so from within a cavity, and you can hear it at some distance. Once you finally get close enough to get a good fix on the direction of the hooting, they spot you, slink back into the hole, and stop responding. You might find a likely looking hole in the tree, but you won't see the bird now. But then once in a great while one is bold enough to keep tooting after they see you and while they're sitting on an open perch. This one gave both song types of Western Screech-Owl – the bouncing ball song and the double-trill song – making the ID a cinch. I wanted to be certain, as this one area where this and Whiskered Screech-Owl coexist, where both of their habitats interdigitate along Florida Canyon. The black bill, big feet, and more prominent central shaft streak on each breast feather are field marks that are a little trickier to judge, but all are visible in this photo. Whiskered has a greenish bill, little feet, and thicker side squiggles on each breast feather, giving it a more mottled look below.

Field guides have long misled birders into thinking these species segregate by elevation, but I have yet to see any evidence that birds decide on their distributions by referring to an altimeter. It's all habitat, habitat, habitat. Western needs trees with cavities next to open areas for hunting, with mice being an important food item. Whiskered forages in the understory of oak and pine-oak woodlands, mostly feeding on insects. So there are areas where Western Screech-Owl occurs over 8000 feet on south-facing slopes, while in some of the more protected canyons Whiskered Screech-Owls can find appropriate habitat down to about 3600 feet.


  1. Very cool Rich! Embarrassingly, I have yet to see either owl you mention having only been owling once. Hopefully that will change this year. Thanks for the ID tips.

  2. I miss our backyard screech owls that were breeding for years regularly in an old Ironwood - until the last bad drought killed all the fledgelings when they were just on their own. Last summer I heard the ping pong ball a couple of times, maybe they are coming back.

  3. Great shot, Rich! They always look a bit cross-eyed to me....