As recently as the
early '80s, birding literature indicated this species withdrew southward from
its Arizona breeding territory in the winter, but it is now known to be a
permanent resident. Indeed, this past November we had a pair of Whiskereds
calling near Patagonia.
Whiskered Screech-Owls in Arizona inhabit pine/oak associations in all the
mountain ranges from the Santa Catalinas south, primarily above 5,000 feet, and
they are common within this habitat. We saw our life Whiskered in May, 1979 on a
Maricopa Audubon Society field trip led by Jim Anderson, then the manager of the
Ramsey Canyon Preserve. Jim played a Whiskered tape just inside the national
forest boundary of Carr Canyon and the response was immediate. It was Jim's
opinion that Whiskereds were so plentiful and so "callible" that discreet use of
tapes or voice mimicking would not harm the species.
Although some overlap may occur with its look alike congener, Western
Screech-Owl, Whiskereds generally occur at higher elevations and prefer denser
woodlands than the latter. Traditionally good places to see Whiskereds have been
Bear Canyon picnic area on the road to Mt. Lemmon north of Tucson, the upper
parking lot in Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas, the end of the road in Miller
Canyon in the Huachucas, and anywhere along the road above the visitors' center
in Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahuas.
In Arizona Whiskereds nest in May, typically laying three to four eggs in
natural oak or sycamore cavities or abandoned flicker excavations. This species
is most vocal from April through June. If you can't seem to be in the right
woods on the right night to hear calling Whiskereds and are hesitant to call
them up yourself during nesting, you may want to try right now during the winter
season. Some feel that Whiskereds, like Western Screech-Owls, come more readily
to imitations of their calls when they are sorting out territories and resolving
disputes with neighboring and transient birds prior to the actual nesting.
The Whiskered call is a series of soft hoots, long and short notes
interspersed, which is often likened to Morse Code, and is quite distinct from
the calls of Western Screech-Owl and Flammulated Owl, species which might be
found in the same areas. As is often the case with our small owls, it is
somewhat ventriloquial and usually closer than it sounds. Although numerous
theories, both scientifically sound and apocryphally arcane, have been advanced
for best owling in full moonlight, the best reason is apparently the simplestit
is easier to see the owl come in on a bright night than in total darkness.
Whiskered Screech-Owls are said to be strictly nocturnal. They do not begin
to hunt until after dark, roosting silently during daylight in a cavity or in
dense foliage next to a tree bole. This begs two questions. Are they ever seen
in daylight and, if so, can they be distinguished from Western Screech-Owl
without benefit of vocalization? Despite what the literature implies,
affirmative to both. Within the past few years there have been at least two
hotline reports of Whiskereds seen fully exposed in tree cavities at eye level
during daytime hours. One of these reports came from Stewart campground in Cave
Creek and one from the nature trail above Proctor Road in Madera Canyon.
If you're really prepared for that first daytime Whiskered, you'll whip out
your micrometer and measure the rictal bristles at the base of its bill. They'll
be longer than those on a Western, just another forehead smacking example of a
species named for one of its distinguishing yet indistinguishable and laughably
irrelevant field marks. But, there are three field marks to look for. Check out
the accompanying photos and see if you can discern the differences.
The first and perhaps best field mark is bill color. The tip of the upper
mandible on both species will be light, but on a Western Screech-Owl the basal
two-thirds is dark whereas the Whiskered's will be greenish-yellow in that area.
A second diagnostic is the general pattern of the underparts. Breast and belly
feathers of both species are light with a single dark vertical shaft
crosshatched by several dark horizontal streaks. On Westerns the crosshatching
is closer together and much narrower than that of the Whiskered, giving the
latter a bolder, more distinct look than the former's muted, less obvious
The third field mark brings to light the fascinating interplay between prey
species, habitat niche, and structural evolution. Western Screech-Owls live on
rodents, but have been known to resort to insects if their preferred prey
population is down. Whiskered Screech-Owls live on insects, but have been known
to take an occasional rodent if presented with the opportunity. Both capture
their prey feet first with their talons. Bet that the Western has
proportionately larger feet than the Whiskered. After multiple observations of
both the difference will seem obvious, even without side by side comparison.
Despite its specialty status, Whiskered Screech-Owl may well be the most
predictable and easiest of Arizona's thirteen owl species to just decide to walk
out your door and go see. It's permanent, it's vocal, it's common in the proper
habitat, and much of that habitat includes delightful-even-in-winter camping and
hiking venues in southern Arizona's accessible national forests. Would you
rather be scanning for Snowy Owls on the harbor ice in Duluth this time of year?