While "hoot" owls (great-horned and barred owls) are among our largest birds and reign supreme as predators of the night, a screech is robin-sized. Think pint jar. Smaller than two fists. While screeches do slightly outweigh robins, size varies geographically, heavier birds living to the north.
Screeches accept a variety of habitats, urban to suburban to rural. The single requirement: trees. While a preponderance of nests have been found in apple, cottonwood, oaks, elms, and pines, that's probably because these trees tend to have more cavities from broken limbs or disease.
Pairs usually remain monogamous, an important trait to the female. She alone incubates their three or four eggs for 30 days and broods the young, so she relies on a good man to bring food to her and their babies.
Beyond their ready adaptation to housing alternatives, however, screeches are famous for something no other North American owl displays: They come in two morphs, one gray, one red. The red ones are more unusual, only 36 percent range-wide. Tennessee and Illinois, however, host the largest percentage of red morphs, almost 80 percent.
The complicated part, though, is that red and gray morphs will pair; and when they do, they produce a mixed brood--some babies red; some babies gray, but never a color blend. Scientists admit they know little about how color inheritance works, but both morphs wear the same distinct cryptic plumage patterns.
Scientists also explain that red feathers take more energy to produce and maintain than do gray. So female screeches, heftier than males, are more often red because their mass and fat stores provide that energy. Because red feathers provide less warmth than do gray, more southern birds are red than are northern birds, and red populations of these non-migratory birds decline during severe winters. And finally, because red feathers more easily abrade than do gray, screeches in arid regions are always gray.
Colors also vary geographically. Screeches in Canada and the north-central U.S. generally show a paler gray than do eastern birds.
Males and females look alike, except, as with all raptors, the female is the larger of the two.
Screeches also have a call all their own, not a screech as the name would suggest, but a whinny, somewhat like that of a horse. A bit spooky, the call often makes its way into horror movie soundtracks. And while he's smaller than his mate, the male has the deeper voice.
So listen for the whinny. It may reveal a diminutive secret neighbor.