Chalk this one up under the category of “something you hear about but haven’t seen”. You always hear about songbirds “mobbing” owls, but it’s not something I’ve personally witnessed more than a handful of times. Yesterday after birding, on my way home, I thought I’d do one quick drive up “Spook Road”, a road east of my hometown of Brandon that follows a little creek, and has some nice riparian veg and trees. It’s been a good birding spot in the past.
As I drove slowly down the road with my windows open, I first heard the scolding of a Blue Jay, and then a Chickadee and Robin that were joining in. With multiple species all scolding something, I figured it was likely an owl or other bird of prey. I stopped the car and looked around, but didn’t see anything at first. But then a Brown Thrasher came into the picture and went flying at something, banking off at a sharp angle right before it got to its quarry. There was a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl sitting on a branch, the target of the scolding by the mob of songbirds.
Two things were interesting about it, one, of course, being the mobbing behavior. There was also a Swainson’s Thrush hanging around showing interest, a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a few others. It did make me wonder how much of a threat Screech Owls are to all these species. I’m sure they will take a songbird when they get a chance, but I don’t think a Screech Owl would take a bird the size of a Blue Jay. It didn’t seem to matter though, as it seemed like every bird in the area was intent on driving him away. The owl, for his part, didn’t seem to care. In fact, for most of the time he was being scolded, he had his eyes closed.
The second interesting thing was that it was a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl. The gray phase if overwhelmingly more common in South Dakota, and in fact, the ONLY place I’ve ever seen a red-phase screech owl here is…right on Spook Road, within a mile of this same bird. It’s been a handful of times where I’ve encountered them in this area now, so obviously the red-phase gene is sticking around in this particular spot.