Morphs of the Eastern Screech-Owl

by Ron Pittaway

Red morph Eastern Screech-Owl at Point Pelee National Park on 11 May 2013


Revised January 2014. First published in Ontario Birds 13(2): 66-71, 1995.



The Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio) is a widespread resident in southern Ontario south of the Canadian Shield (James 1991). It prefers small deciduous or mixed woodlots with mature trees and snags for roosting and nesting. The Eastern Screech-Owl is strictly nocturnal. During the day it usually perches close to the trunk of a thick evergreen or roosts in a natural cavity or old flicker hole, rarely more than 10 metres up. On winter days it often sits in the entrance of a south-facing hole, absorbing the warm sunlight. If disturbed, it retreats down the hole. Many birders are familiar with its two common calls: a short horse-like whinny in the fall and winter, and a toad-like trilling in the spring and nesting season.

Most field guides illustrate and describe two colour morphs, gray and red, of the Eastern Screech-Owl. Both the gray and red morphs are illustrated in the National Geographic Guide (Dunn and Alderfer 2011), and the Peterson Field Guide (2008). In addition, there is a little-known brown or intermediate morph. In this account I discuss the identification, frequency, genetics, and some ecological differences of the three morphs of the Eastern Screech-Owl in Ontario. The three morphs are illustrated in Voous (1988), The Sibley Guide to Birds (2000) and by Peter Burke in Figure 1. 



Godfrey (1986) and James (1991) list O.a. naevius as the only subspecies of the Eastern Screech-Owl in Ontario. A much paler subspecies swenki breeds in western Manitoba, intergrading with eastern naevius at Winnipeg and Whitemouth. These locations are shown on the map on the inside cover of The Birds of Canada (Godfrey 1986). Other subspecies in North America are listed in the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list (1957). This treatment of subspecies is in need of revision. I agree with DeBenedictis (1977) that the most sensible treatment of subspecies is by Marshall (1967) who lists five subspecies: nominate O.a. asio (includes naevius of the AOU 1957 and Godfrey 1986) of the East, O.a. maxwelliae (includes swenki of the AOU 1957 and Godfrey 1986) of the Great Plains, O.a. floridanus of Florida west to Mississippi, O.a. hasbrouchi of Texas, and O.a. mccallii of the Rio Grande Valley. The Eastern Screech-Owl account in The Birds of North America On-line (1995) has a map of the distribution of the currently recognized subspecies.

Morphs vary in hue depending on whether the subspecies is dark or pale. For example, compare the eastern gray morph with the paler western gray morph maxwelliae (includes swenki) on page 287of the National Geographic Guide (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). Similarly, the red morph of the western maxwelliae is paler than the eastern red morph.

Why are the three morphs of the Eastern Screech-Owl not considered subspecies? Subspecies are forms having separate breeding ranges, interbreeding where their ranges meet. Morphs are forms occurring in the same breeding range, with different morphs even occurring in the same brood. The third part of the scientific name is the name of the subspecies, for example, Otus asio naevius is the subspecies in Ontario (AOU 1957). It has three morphs. Morphs do not have scientific names. In screech-owls, the morphs are more recognizable than the subspecies.


Figure 1. Three morphs of the Eastern Screech-Owl by Peter Burke published in Ontario Birds Vol.13 No. 2, 1995


Plumages, Molts, Aging and Sexing


The sexes are similar in all ages and plumages. Juveniles (juvenals) in summer are narrowly barred all over, except on the wings and tail which are much like the adult. Gray and red morph juveniles usually are distinguishable in the field. See the illustration of the gray morph juvenile on page 287of the National Geographic Guide (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). In late summer and early fall, juveniles undergo a partial molt to first year (first basic) plumage, retaining the juvenile wings, scapulars and tail. First year birds and adults (definitive basic) are similar in appearance. First year birds (when they are one year old) and adults undergo a complete molt from late July to mid-November to fresh adult plumage. Colours become faded and dull on worn birds by the next spring and summer. See Bent (1938) for excellent descriptions of plumages and molts in juveniles, first year birds and adults. Partial and total albinos are known in this species (Holt et al. 1995).



Figure 2. Data from Table 1 in Owen (1963)


Morph Genetics


The three morphs vary in colour and in the extent and pattern of the dark markings on their feathers. See Figure 1. Out of a total of 1320 specimens examined by Owen (1963) from throughout the range, 54 percent were gray, 38 percent red and 8 percent intermediate (brown). In his study, Owen divided 833 screech-owls from selected areas into six colour types, grading from gray to red: two gray, two intermediate (brown), and two red. Figure 2 shows the strong bimodal (gray and red) distribution of the morphs and the continuous variation between the morphs. The gray, brown and red morphs are not linked to age, sex or subspecies. A bird is hatched a certain morph and remains that colour all its life. All three morphs have been observed in the same brood (Hrubant 1955, Smith 1993). There are two main theories for the three morphs: (1) the gray and red morphs are due to one gene having two alleles (forms) with red dominant over gray, with the brown morph due to other modifying genes; (2) the morphs are due to one gene having three alleles with a graded order of dominance, red over brown over gray (Hrubant 1955, Owen 1967, VanCamp and Henny 1975, DeBenedictis 1977). There is no clear resolution of which hypothesis is correct. Perhaps the variation observed in the morphs is under the control of more than one gene.  


Gray Morph  

The gray morph is the most common morph in Ontario and throughout the northern part of the Eastern Screech Owl's range. See Figure 3. Based on specimens in the Royal Ontario Museum, Martin (1950) reported that 81 percent of the population in Ontario was of the gray morph. Martin did not recognize a brown morph, apparently lumping gray and brown birds in his study. Gray morph birds in fresh plumage in fall are a clear gray, becoming tinged with brown on worn and faded birds in spring and summer (Kaufman 1990). Typical brown morphs are a richer cinnamon-brown colour, including the facial disc.


Figure 3. Gray morph Eastern Screech-Owl in Toronto, 20 January 2011


Red Morph


Red morph screech-owls are bright, “a gorgeous rufous like a red fox" (Marshall 1967). Red morphs comprise about 19 percent of the Ontario population, based on specimens in the Royal Ontario Museum (Martin 1950).

Red birds are uncommon in the northern parts of the screech-owl's range. Why? The reason may be that red morph birds have a lower survival rate than gray birds during unusually cold and severe winters. Plumage colour is correlated with thermal adaptation. Mosher and Henny (1976) found under laboratory conditions at -5° C and -10° C that red birds had significantly higher metabolic requirements than gray birds. Differential mortality was observed in an Ohio study by VanCamp and Henny (1975). They report that 44 percent more red birds died than gray birds during the particularly severe winter of 1951-1952. Perhaps the percentage of red birds declined in southern Ontario during the winter of 1993-1994, one of the snowiest and coldest winters on record! Similarly, Gullion and Marshall (1968) in Minnesota found a differential mortality between red and gray morph Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) related to winter survival. Why red coloration is linked to winter survival in these two species is unknown.

There are two additional differences between gray and red morph birds that are noteworthy. First, Kay McKeever (pers. comm.) reports that "the feathering on the legs of red birds appears to be less dense than on grays". Second, red birds spend more time in cavities during cold winter days, 80 percent (red) versus 38 percent (gray) (Voous 1988). Bruce Di Labio (pers. comm.) reported that the red bird of a mixed pair he observed for many years in Ottawa often was more difficult to find in winter than the gray bird.


Figure 4. Red morph Eastern Screech Owl at Burlington, 27 Feb. 2012



Brown Morph


The brown or intermediate morph is by far the least common form in screech-owl populations, except in Florida where intermediates make up to 40 percent of the population (Owen 1963). Based on 247 screech-owls from Ontario admitted to The Owl Foundation in Vineland, only six or 2.43 percent were classified as brown morphs by Kay McKeever (Penak 1986). Bull (1974) examined 144 New York specimens in eight state museums; only four or 2.78 percent were brown morph birds.

Peter Burke (pers. comm.) and Tim Dyson banded an intermediate morph screech-owl on 4 March 1995 near Peterborough. Peter described it as “very beautiful indeed. The overall coloration was dry gray-brown, with highlights of bright rufous-reddish areas on the scapulars and breast feathers”. Kay McKeever (pers. comm.) of The Owl Foundation in Vineland describes the brown morph as a "warm brown like a saw-whet owl". Ross James (in litt.) of the Royal Ontario Museum says "there is considerable variation in the brown coloration depending on whether it tends towards reddish or grayish. In general, the brown is more of a cinnamon or tawny brown as opposed to a dark chocolate, reflecting a mix of reddish tones on one side and lighter or whiter gray on the other". In New England the brown morph is described as being chocolate brown in colour (Smith 1993), but intermediate birds from Ontario in the ROM are not chocolate brown (Ross James, pers. comm.). Similarly, Kay McKeever (pers. comm.) has never seen a chocolate brown Eastern Screech-Owl.

Be aware that brown morph screech-owls could be overlooked as gray birds given only a frontal (ventral) view. The rich brown coloration is most apparent on the upperparts (dorsum), the side least often viewed. When identifying a brown morph, keep in mind that recently molted gray morphs in fall in fresh plumage are clear gray above, but become tinged with brown on worn and faded birds by spring and summer (Kaufman 1990). 



Figure 5. Brown morph Eastern Screech-Owl in Toronto on 1 March 2008



Three recognizable forms of the Eastern Screech-Owl occur in Ontario: gray, brown and red morphs. The gray morph is the most common, comprising about 80 percent of the Ontario population; the red morph is less than 20 percent; and the brown morph is the rarest, comprising less than three percent. Typical (most) individuals of each morph are easily recognizable, but note that there is continuous variation between red and gray birds.



For advice and assistance in the preparation of this article, I thank Peter Burke, Bill Crins, Bruce Di Labio, Tim Dyson, Earl Godfrey, Michel Gosselin, Mary Ellen Hebb, Jean Iron, Alvaro Jaramillo, Ross James, Kay McKeever, Dwight Smith, Ron Tozer and Mike Turner. Peter Burke's illustration of the three morphs is a masterpiece that greatly enhances the text.



Figure 6. Front cover of Ontario Birds Vol.13 No. 2. 1995. Illustration by Christine Kerrigan

Literature Cited


American Ornithologists' Union. 1957. Check-list of North American Birds, 5th Edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Bent, A. C. 1938. Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. Part 2. United States National Museum Bulletin 170. Washington, D.C.

Bull. J. 1974. Birds of New York State. Doubleday/Natural History Press, Garden City. New York.

DeBenedictis, P. 1977. Gleanings from the technical literature. Birding 9: 238-241.

Dunn, J.L. and J. Alderfer. 2011. 6th Edition. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic. Washington, D.C.

Gehlbach, Frederick R. 1995. Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Godfrey, W.E. 1986. The Birds of Canada. Revised Edition. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa.

Gullion, G. and W.H. Marshall. 1968. Survival of the Ruffed Grouse in a boreal forest. Living Bird 7: 117-167.

Holt, D. w. M. W. Robertson and J.H. Ricks. Albino Eastern Screech-Owl. Otus asio. Canadian Field-Naturalist 109: 121-122.71

Hrubant, H.E. 1955. An analysis of the color phases of the Eastern Screech Owl. Otus asio, by the gene frequency method. American Naturalist 89: 223-230.

James, R.D. 1991. Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ontario. Second Edition. Life Sciences Miscellaneous Publications. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Kaufman, K. 1990. A Field Guide to Advanced Birding. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Marshall, J.T. 1967. Parallel variation in the screech owls of North and Middle America. Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology Monograph 1: 1-72. 

Martin, N.D. 1950. Color phase investigations on the Screech Owl in Ontario. Canadian Field-Naturalist 64: 208-211.

Mosher, J.A. and C.J Henny. 1976. Thermal adaptiveness of plumage colors in Screech Owls. Auk 93: 614-619.

Owen, D.F. 1963. Polymorphism in the Screech Owl in eastern North America. Wilson Bulletin 75: 183-190.

Penak, B.L. 1986. Status Report on the Eastern Screech Owl in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, Ottawa.

Peterson, R. T. 2008. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Robbins, C.S., B. Bruun and H.S. Zim. 1983. Birds of North America. Golden Press, New York.

Sibley, David A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knoft, New York.

Smith, D.G. 1993. Eastern Screech Owls. Bird Watcher's Digest 16 {11:32-39.

VanCamp, L.F. and C.J. Henny. 1975. The Screech Owl: Its Life History and Population Ecology in Northern Ohio. North American Fauna, Number 71. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 65 pages.

Voous, K.H. 1988. Owls of the Northern Hemisphere. Collins, London.

Ron Pittaway, 9 Lichen Place, Toronto ON M3A 1X3.