I like birds. This is no surprise to anyone who knows me. There are limits, however.
In the corner of my garage, I have a shop. It's my retreat. When I need to escape the pressures of the day job, I make sawdust. It's great therapy. Now, if I wanted to see birds, I would head for Agate Lake or the mountains, not my shop. It's a neat and orderly world. Boards inside. Birds outside.
Of late my world has been disturbed. I find my boards are being autographed by a bird. The droppings are larger than from a sparrow or robin. Occasionally a bird will enter my garage and become confused for a time before finding the big open door again and leaving behind evidence of the visit.
The droppings continue! This time there are additional clues, a few feathers. They are grayish with a mottled pattern. A little more inspection, and I have my perpetrator.
A western screech-owl has decided the rafters make a suitable roosting place. On this day I look up into the dark corner and see two yellow eyes staring back. There is probably no bird in the region that is more common yet rarely seen than the screech-owl.
Screech-owls are no longer than a robin but much more robust. The ear tufts make it look like the much larger great horned owl, and the screech-owl thinks it is just as big. Don't tell it otherwise. It has an attitude.
Screech-owls are a bird of forest edges, woodlots and suburban landscapes, but I have come to realize they are anywhere there are even a few trees "… always watching. The Southern Oregon University campus is crawling with students. Not the most likely place for birds. Yet it has crows, robins and starlings and such. It also has screech-owls. I have discovered at least two resident pairs, and there may be more.
Where do you hide screech-owls on a college campus? Well, there is the palm tree by the student union. There is the tall, skinny Italian cypress by Churchill Hall. Then there is the drain pipe in the Lenn Hannon Library. As the shadows lengthen on campus, the little owl would emerge from the depths of the drain pipe to sit at the entrance until it was time for the evening hunt.
Screech-owls are common the world over. There are tropical screech-owls, long-eared screech-owls, and whiskered screech-owls, among others.
In the Old World, the various screech-owls are called scops owls. I have no idea what a "scops" is, but the "screech" in the name "screech-owl" is certainly a misnomer. The western screech-owl has a soft call that accelerates like the bouncing of a small ball. The local bird that really screeches is the western scrub-jay. Indeed, the way I find screech-owls is to listen for the annoyed (and annoying) screech of a scrub-jay.
I have frequently suggested to deaf ears that there should be a name change. The western screech-owl should become the western scrub-owl. It fairly describes much of its habitat. The jay would then become the western screech-jay. This is unquestionably a more appropriate name for this bird.
If on your next sojourn into your backyard or down a shady lane you feel you are being watched, you probably are. The only question is by how many eyes.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.