Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Attract Screech Owls to your yard with nest box

You feed small songbirds and put up nest boxes to attract them. Why not do the same for owls?

Your yard probably already has the worms, frogs, mice, rats, gophers, and rabbits that owls eat.

Owls eat a lot of rodents! Cute and beneficial--who could ask for more!

If you install an owl nesting box you can likely attract owls to your backyard. 

The easiest owl in the U.S. to attract to your yard with a nest box is the Screech Owl. 

In recent years scientists discovered that there are actually 2 species of owls in North America formerly considered one. We now have Eastern Screech-Owls (Megascops asio) and Western Screech-Owls (Megascops kennicottii). These go along with another screech owl in the United States, the Whiskered Screech-Owl (Megascops trichopsis) found mostly in Mexico, but barely reaches into SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.

Nearly wherever you live in the United States, then, (except for parts of central Wyoming, northern Michigan, northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont) you can attract Screech Owls to your backyard.

Photo of Eastern Screech-Owl on branch
Eastern Screech-Owl
Image by Irene K-s from Pixabay

What makes your yard attractive to owls?

Owls need food, water, shelter, and a place to nest.

Your yard provides the food. It doesn't take much "wild" space to attract owls. They can find food in the leaf litter under larger trees, or in the trees themselves. They can find food in taller grass in a vacant lot or field next door. There are almost always mice and rats in our yards that we never know about.

Put your outdoor lights on timers to turn off late at night. Owls like it darker.

You can provide a bird bath for owls. You'll probably never know, though, that they've been there for a dip in the night.

Dense trees and gnarled larger trees make the best spots for owls to roost and sleep during the day.
Trees with cavities in them provide a nesting place. But you can provide an owl box for nesting, too.

Photo of Western Screech-Owl roosting in a cedar tree
Western Screech-Owl roosting in a cedar
Photo by Greg Gillson

Screech Owl nests in nature

Screech Owls nest in cavities.

Frequently, cavities excavated by woodpeckers serve as nests for Screech Owls. 

Larger woodpeckers that provide nest holes for Screech Owls include Acorn Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers but, especially, Northern Flickers. Do you have any of these woodpeckers in your neighborhood? Then you may already have Screech Owls visiting your yard!

Natural cavities can form in trees due to rot or broken off branches. Oak trees, maple trees, cottonwoods, and old orchard fruit trees tend to form such suitable hollow limbs or trunks.

Rarely, Screech Owls nest in cut banks or cliffs.

The male Screech Owl scouts out and finds possible nest sites. He will lead his mate there. Often he provides her food to show he is a good provider. Finally, the female selects the best nest site. They may return for several years to the same nest site. They may roost in the nest throughout the year.

The owls don't add any material to the cavity for the nest. 

On average, good nesting cavities are about 1 to 1.5 feet deep. The entrance hole is usually just large enough to get in. If it is too much larger other predators (raccoons, larger owls) can get in.

Screech Owls begin courtship as early as January in southern areas with nesting and eggs as early as February

In more northerly areas birds sitting on eggs can be as late as July.

Screech Owls lay 2-8 (usually 4-5) eggs. Incubation lasts about 26-34 days until the eggs hatch. 

Juveniles usually first fledge and leave the nest about 28 days after hatching.

Parents will feed the young outside the nest for 8 to 10 weeks. The young may return to the nest cavity to roost at night during this time.

You'll love this video of baby Screech Owls!

The Screech Owl nest box

Screech Owls will readily use artificial owl birdhouses. You can build your own as a DIY project. If you purchase or make a box, make sure it is close to the following dimensions.

The box should be made from untreated and unpainted wood. Pine or cedar makes a good choice. A thickness of 3/4 inches provides durability and insulation.

Screech Owl nest box dimensions

The box dimensions are as follows. The floor should be about 10x12 inches. The height of the box should be 14 inches. The entrance hole should be 3 inches in diameter, centered 9 inches from the floor.

The roof should overhang slightly and slope down in front so rain water doesn't drip into the nest. Recessing the floor up inside a bit should keep water from seeping in. Be sure their are drain holes at the corners of the floor.

Do not add a perch, as perches make it easier for predators to reach the eggs or young. Instead, make the entrance hole with double-thick wood to keep potential predators from being able to reach inside.

One side of the nest box should be hinged for cleaning after the nesting season is over. The boxes should last 2-3 seasons before they need replaced.

Cut grooves or attach small strips of wood inside the box below the entrance hole. This allows the owls to get out of the owl box more easily.

Whether you make your own owl nest box or purchase one, look for these dimensions.

Screech Owl nest box dimension overview

  • Floor 10x12 inches
  • Height 14 inches
  • Entrance 3 inches in diameter, 9 inches up from floor
  • Box height 10-30 feet above ground

Add 2 to 3 inches of wood shavings in the bottom of the box. After each nesting season replace the wood shavings putting in the box 2-3 inches of fresh shavings.

Check out the many different types of owl nest boxes that Amazon sells.

Here is one that has the correct dimensions and good reviews (includes hinged sides and wood shavings). (You will still need to figure out for yourself how to mount it.)

Are you a do-it-yourselfer? This diy Screech Owl box on the Hobby Farms website (here) is built with a single plank of cedar lumber 1 inch thick, 10 inches wide, and 8 feet long. Follow the nest box plans there. It shows the cuts and tools needed.

You will find other bird house plans for owls and other wildlife in this woodworking book:

Screech Owl nest box placement

Nest boxes for Screech Owls should be placed 10 to 30 feet above the ground. Do not place multiple Screech Owl boxes closer than 100 to 1000 feet apart (I have seen both distances referenced). 

Screech Owls are territorial. They will chase away other owls in this 1000 foot radius. On the other hand, having an alternative nest box for the pair allows the owls to choose their preferred nest site. It also give them a second place to nest if the first attempt fails. Or it gives a place for other birds to nest.

Ideally, the entrance hole should face southeast. Face the front of the owl box in a direction ranging from east to south. Screech Owls love to sit in the entrance hole and warm by the rising sun. Avoid placing the nest entrance facing between north and west.

Owls are rather messy around their nest site. So choose a location where white wash (owl poo) will not be a problem. You may also observe owl pellets (regurgitated bones and hair) under favorite perches.

When should you put up an owl box? Owls may roost in the box any time of year. But for nesting in the next season put up the box in the fall before the male owl begins scouting for possible nest sites in winter.

If you place the nest box in a tree, consider placing the box under a branch. Young owls climb out of the nest box onto the top of the box and flap-hop out on nearby branches. The owls don't like any branches blocking the entrance hole, though.

You may place a nest box on the east or south side of a barn or other tall out building. Hang the box under the eaves to protect from rain, but also so that predators can't jump down from the roof.

Using a pole mounted nest box will work too. A pole may be best to keep out squirrels which may climb trees to take over the owl box. Use a baffle on the pole to keep squirrels from climbing up. Place the pole 10 feet from a tree or structure where the squirrel could jump across to the box.

Owls do like a staging perch placed about 12 feet from the nest entrance and about 6 feet off the ground. A shepherd's hook works well for this. So will a wooden raptor perch on a pole. The owls will land here first before flying into the nest box. The male will perch here and guard the nest while the female is inside incubating.

Here's a great little video discussing Screech Owl nest box placement:

Nest box competitors and maintenance

The Screech Owl nest box dimensions are also suitable for other birds and animals who may try to take over the box for roosting or nesting.

European Starlings and various tree squirrels may try to take over the box. They will fill the box with straw (starlings) or leaves (squirrels). Remember that the owls don't add any material to nests. Starlings may take several days to a week to build their nest. So try to remove the invading nesting material before the starlings lay eggs. If you see starlings or squirrels inspecting your box you need to do so, too. Remove any foreign material they may have added.

These nest boxes are also perfect for American Kestrels and Northern Flickers, too. These are desirable birds, so I wouldn't be too upset if they nested instead of the owls. Remember, owls generally nest earlier in the spring than other birds. So if the kestrels or flickers begin nesting in the boxes in May or June, the owls likely aren't going to nest this late in the year anyway.

Put up nest boxes in the fall or early winter so owls find them when they start scouting for nest sites in January. Raising young in a nest is messy. The nest box may become infested with various insects. Clean out the nest box in fall. Put in 2-3 inches of new wood shavings.

You may like: 5 Common backyard owls


  1. Thank you for this very informative post!

  2. Thank you for this, well researched and written. Great read!

  3. Hi - Thanks so much for this article, and ALL your wonderful, educational articles!

    Can you please answer a few questions...

    1) I heard that Screech owls like "cover" so a pole mount would not as attractive as a tree mount. Is that correct?

    2) Do I need to keep the box a certain distance from a swimming pool. I heard the chicks might drown as they are not great flyers early on.

    3) I know Screech owls are very territorial, but I heard it was only towards other Screech owls, not other owl species. Can you give you thoughts on that?

    4) I have a stand of a few oak trees. Would placing a box in one of those be good?

    Again, THANKS for all your articles!

    1. Thank you for your comments and great questions, Steviemac.

      First of all, a stand of oaks would be a great place for a nest box.

      Larger owls will attack (and even eat!) smaller owls. Screech Owls and Saw-whet Owls are similar in size. Both are smaller. I've frequently found them near each other. But Screech Owls do vigorously defend their nests. That said, they seem sluggish during the day time.

      Your question on swimming pools I just do not know. Larger owls have been reported as rescued from large outdoor pools. They even drink and bathe in small kiddie pools. I would keep nest boxes as far as reasonable, and wouldn't have the box opening facing the pool.

      A tree mount would be ideal. But a pole mount could work too, according to my research. In either case, birds want a clear flight path to the box.


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