Twilight Tremolo

Photo of an Eastern Screech-owl.Listening to the sounds of night can be rewarding and sometimes scary (see Lang’s post). Armed with some knowledge of what these sounds are will assuage your fears, creating a feeling of joy and reward when you hear something that you recognize.

Among these amazing night-time sounds are the calls of the Eastern Screech-owl. These diminutive denizens of the dark are heard far more often than seen. About the size of a robin, they spend the day tucked up against the trunk of a tree or hidden within an old woodpecker hole. Occasionally, you might see an Eastern Screech-owl sitting in the entrance of a hole or nest box, seemingly sunning itself late in the afternoon.

Once the sun sets and the woods become quiet, the little screech-owls may start to call. Although they can be heard calling year-round, Eastern Screech-owls call more often from late June through mid-November. There are several calls that are used for different purposes: the tremolo is used for pair and family contact; the whinny call is used in territorial defense; and impressive squeals and bill snaps are given when there is a perceived threat to the nest or young.

Tremolo and whinny calls of a pair of Eastern Screech-owls. Frederick Co., MD. 1998 ©Wil Hershberger

A pair of Eastern Screech-owls engaged in squealing and bill snapping (the so-called “chuckle-rattle calls”) in response to my imitations of their tremolo calls. Frederick Co., MD. 1998 ©Wil Hershberger


  1. Lang: That’s true. My mom grew up on a farm, and as a child, she would hear these horrid screaming sounds in the night. Her and her sister Alanna would run in the house in fear. Then they would tell their big brother Kevin about it, and he would tell them “It’s a Bobcat you dummies!”

  2. Lang, no I’ve never heard it. Thus, I really enjoyed this post. When I’ve happened upon them in a box, they are soooo sleepy. Lethargic even. Is there a word for this I wonder? For nocturnal animals that are lethargic during the day?

    • Here in Western NC, the older locals recall panthers making sounds that they describe as being just like a woman screaming. The locals call them “painters.” They are most likely describing the Eastern Cougar which is now likely extinct or close to extinct. Florida cougars are closely related and some still live in northern Florida.


  3. Love these! I’ve been lucky enough to handle Screech Owls up close when doing a American Kestrel nest box survey. Sometimes the little Screechies come across them and set up home and lay eggs. I am always amazed at how small they are. And in the day time, very sleepy-eyed. The way they look at you is SO captivating. Their chicks are the cutest of all!

  4. Such eerie sounds the screech-owl makes. I’ve never actually heard one but I’ve seen them dead on the road and flying across roads at night.

    • Lisa: Wil can speak for himself, but I think this is a typical reaction if a person (or actual predator) comes close to an active nest.

      BTW, our launch date for our newly designed site is tentatively set for February 10 (or thereabouts), at which time we’ll feature our first six pure nature soundscape titles: Birds at Dawn, Loon Lake, Meadow Pastorale, Insect Lullabies, Amazon Dreams, Birds and Brooks. You’re going to love ’em! And lots more will follow in the months to come. I’m very excited about this … a long time in coming.

    • Lisa, It certainly was a treat to have the owls react that way. I feel that there must have been juveniles in the area and the pair thought that I was another adult owl that was intruding into their territory. After I recorded these amazing vocalizations, I left the area immediately.
      Thank you for your comments,

  5. Wil, I love your recordings of the squeals and bill-snaps. I wonder if that’s the call that earned the “Screech-owl” its name? Or is it a misnomer? Some folks think the name “screech-owl” arose because someone confused an immature Great Horned Owl with a screech-owl … and immature great-horneds really do screech … nobody would argue with that! I’ve never heard a screech-owl give a full-bodied screech of any sort. The sound of “squealing tires” is not the same as a “screech,” at least not in my book.

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