The Western Screech Owl

This beautiful small owl with yellow eyes, and “ear tufts’‘ was once widespread in southern coastal BC, but has seen a dramatic decline in numbers in the last 20 years, and is now considered a species of special concern.

While the spread of barred owls, which hunt screech owls, and loss of habitat to forestry are thought to be factors in their decline, researchers are still trying to figure out what is happening to this little owl and what we can do to help.

Screech Owls on Cortes

We know screech owls have occurred on Cortes, but their numbers have dwindled. There are historic records from the Gorge Harbour Area. The most recent confirmed record was in 2017 from the northern wilds of Cortes.

FOCI, Screech Owls and the Discovery Islands

In 2021, FOCI was successful in obtaining government Habitat Stewardship Program funding to undertake Screech Owl research on Cortes, and support further research on Read, Maurelle and Sonora Islands.

The research is being guided by the Pacific Megascops (Screech Owl) Research Alliance and Ministry biologists, who are excited to support this work in the Discovery Islands, as it will fill a large gap in their understanding of Western Screech Owl distribution.

The islands are considered to represent a unique set of ecosystems, sitting as they do at the juncture between the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island, and it is hoped that findings will help inform an understanding of habitat preferences for screech owls in the rest of coastal BC.

Searching for owls – ARUs and CPBs!

Working with researchers we have identified areas that are thought to have the most potential for these owls on Cortes. They are largely in the north of the island, and include Carrington Regional Park, Háthayim (Von Donop) Marine Provincial Park, and the northern wilds.

During February and March 2022 and 2023, FOCI biologists surveyed Screech Owls in these areas. They undertook two kinds of surveys. Firstly, call-play-back (CPB) surveys at night; playing screech owl calls at set intervals on predetermined routes, and listening for responses from any owls that might be in the area.

In addition, they put up Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs) in a number of carefully selected locations. These units record all sounds over a period of two to four weeks. The data we collect is then analyzed by Ministry biologists to identify screech owl calls and other species that may be present.

Volunteers on Read, Sonora, and Maurelle Islands have also been putting up ARUs in 2023 and we are excited to see what they find and compare notes.

A world of sound

The bonus of doing this work is that we get a ‘soundscape’ of the local area. If we are lucky enough to find Screech Owls, we will also get an important picture of other species they occur with, including prey species, such as the Pacific chorus frog.

At the same time, it gives us an opportunity to learn about other species that might be present in more remote parts of the island including wolves, and species at risk such as the Northern Goshawk, enabling us find out more about important wildlife on Cortes.

The Bigger Picture

The Pacific Megascops Research Alliance (PMRA) is working to further our understanding of Western Screech-Owls, with the goals of identifying critical habitat and understanding causes of widespread declines. To do so they are collaborating with provincial and federal government biologists and a number of NGOs including Birds Canada, WildResearch, and FOCI to complete surveys across coastal BC.

The Province of BC is also currently supporting research to determine how Western Screech Owl populations have responded to habitat loss and Barred Owl invasions across their range.

What next?

Our funding runs until spring 2024. We will be also working with landowners to protect suitable habitat and install nest boxes; also carry out community engagement through workshops and talks, so everyone has the chance to get involved. You can read about the results of the project in our new Western Screech Owl brochure.

You can help!

We would love to hear from you if you have any memories of Screech owls on Cortes, or even better if you think you may have seen or heard one. Email

Project Partners

This project is being undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change. We are also grateful for invaluable support and guidance from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, and the Pacific Megascops Research Alliance (PMRA). We also appreciate the support of the Cortes General Forestry Coop, BC Parks, SRD Parks and Mosaic forestry management for access to their landholdings for conducting surveys.