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Safety Tips for Prey Animals

SOS Naturalist, Tom, with the Western screech owl
The Western screech owl
Above are some photos of a Western screech owl, a member of the Sierra Outdoor School raptor center.  What is the first word that comes to mind when you see her?  There is a good chance you thought "cute."  Her diminutive stature(not much taller than a soda can) and big eyes make us humans view her in the same way we would view a puppy dog—adorable, harmless and the like.  In doing so it is easy to overlook the fact that the Western screech owl is a raptor, a bird that hunts and kills other animals for its food. 

For the duration of this article, we'd like you to pretend that you are a prey animal of this owl. Take your pick of what you'd like to be.  These owls will take the usual small mammals (mice, rats, etc.) and birds, but are also known for eating reptiles (snakes and lizards) and even insects, sometimes catching them while in flight.  Not even the aquatic animals are safe—these owls have been known to capture and kill trout and crayfish.  If you'd rather be dead than be eaten by a screech owl, know that they've been seen scavenging roadkill.

You are now pretending to be a prey animal of this owl. How would you avoid getting eaten?  Consider that this animal is nocturnal and has a relatively large set of powerful eyes, well suited for hunting at night.  Hiding in the darkest of shadows will not help you.  Do you think that slithering or crawling under the cover of leaves, snow or shrubs will keep you alive?  Consider yourself lunch…owls can use their ears to triangulate the location of their prey without ever seeing it. 

Source: Flickr, Dominic Sherony
Perhaps you are thinking that you could hear or see the owl coming and maybe even fight it when it arrives.  Looking at the owl’s image, you probably noticed that it camouflages well in a forest setting. What you can’t see in the photo are tiny serrations on the owl’s flight feathers that makes the owl's flight nearly silent.  As for fighting back, consider that the owl has incredibly strong talons relative to its body size, allowing it to crush the life from its prey. The rear talon, called the hallux, penetrates the prey’s body, injuring vital organs and potentially severing the spinal cord.   

By now you’re probably thinking that, given no other option, you’re best off leaving the Western screech owl’s territory in search of a safer life somewhere else.  Consider that there are an estimated 400,000 of them in North America ranging from Alaska on down through Mexico.  Hiding in the desert is not an option because they are there, too.  You could try travelling east but you will ultimately meet this owl’s cousin, the Eastern screech owl. 

Since neither running nor hiding is an option, perhaps some knowledge and a little luck will keep you safe.  Keep your ears open for the following sound:

The owl’s name is a misnomer and better suited for its close relative the Eastern screech owl.

If you want to stay alive, be careful around their nesting sites—abandoned woodpecker holes and natural cavities in trees and cacti.  They favor nesting sites near canyons and drainages and will nest up to 6,000 feet above sea level.

An owl in its nest.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps a mating pair of these birds have moved into your neighborhood and recently had offspring. Think the adults will be too busy to eat you?  Think again.  The female bird will be busy with the hatchlings, but the male will still be out hunting and bringing food back to the nest.  Also consider that those little hatchlings will be leaving the nest in a month or less and be out mating within the year.  If you think you can wait out their stay until they die consider that the oldest Western screech owl ever recorded was 13 years old.  As a side note, consider that the single owls are equally as dangerous—the males are known for flaunting their dead prey animals around the mouth of their nest to attract females. 

If by now you are thinking that being 100% safe from a Western screech owl is impossible—you are correct.   If you do get eaten, know that you have become part of the metabolic process of a truly cool animal.  Just consider it’s genus—Megascops—a name that would be equally suitable for a fire-breathing robot.  And the species name? kennicotti, named after the American naturalist Robert Kennicott. 

American naturalist Robert Kennicott.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
If nothing else, we hope that you have a new appreciation for:
1)How great it is to not be a prey animal of a Western screech owl.
2)That while Western screech owls may be cute, they are far from being harmless.


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