Stewardship project for western screech-owl begins




Have you ever been outside on a still evening in late winter and heard a series of mellow, muted hoots that speed up towards the end but remain at the same pitch? You may have detected a western screech-owl. 

These secretive owls are about the size of a standard pair of binoculars and are clad in plumage that resembles Douglas-fir bark, making them very hard to see. They roost by day in tree cavities or tucked next to the trunk of a tree, emerging at night to call to potential mates and hunt for small mammals. 

This endearing owl was once common on Salt Spring Island and in our region but numbers have declined dramatically for the coastal subspecies (Megascops kennicottii kennicottii), and they are now federally listed as threatened. There are many reasons why screech-owl numbers have diminished to a worrisome level on the south coast: loss of forest habitat, removal of dead trees needed for cavity nesting, as well as predation by barred owls, who have, in recent decades, expanded into the coastal regions of B.C. 

The Salt Spring Island Conservancy is launching a three-year project, led by me, Ren Ferguson, to help protect the western screech-owl on our island. A team of local volunteers will be conducting nocturnal surveys starting in February. With surveys and increased public awareness, we hope that we will find more of these threatened owls and work to enhance their habitat. 

How can you help? If you live on a large forested property, or you live in an area with intact forest, you may have this owl living nearby. Step outside after the sun goes down and listen for this little owl’s song. February is the start of their breeding season and that is when these nocturnal birds of prey become more vocal. Their song has the quality of a bouncing ball, with short hoots that become more rapid towards the end. You can listen to recordings of the western screech-owl by going to  

Finding the owls is just the first step. The conservancy will be engaging interested landowners and visiting properties where owls are present, or were known to be in the past, to determine if the habitat could support breeding screech-owls. Part of that determination is to assess whether there are trees with old woodpecker cavities, which these birds require for nesting. If not, the conservancy may work with landowners to install nest boxes to interest the owls in returning to raise their young.  

If you think you may have a screech-owl on your property or are interested in more information about the Western Screech-Owl Stewardship Project, please email

This project is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change.

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