Blind Snakes and Screech-Owls: A Symbiotic Relationship?

  • Reading time:3 mins read
  • Post last modified:January 30, 2023

Screech Owls

Blind Snakes and Screech-Owls

Once it comes to maintaining a nest clean, certain birds will take whatever assistance they can get. This is undoubtedly true of the eastern screech owl. Throughout nesting season, parents provide food to their young, usually involving still-wriggling blind snakes, a little reptile that resembles an extremely long earthworm. 

During the breeding season, when Eastern Screech-Owls capture the worm-like reptiles known as blind snakes, they deliver them to their chicks alive and wriggling. Some are gulped down immediately, but others escape by burrowing beneath the nest.

Blind Snakes

Texas blind snakes (or thread snakes) could easily be mistaken for worms. They are found mostly in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and all mainland Australia and various islands. The rostral scale overhangs the mouth to form a shovel-like burrowing structure.

They live underground in burrows, and since they have no use for vision, their eyes are mostly vestigial. They have light-detecting black eye spots, and teeth occur in the upper jaw.

Why Screech Owls Keep Blind Snakes in Their Nests?

Puzzled by the owls’ snake-sparing behaviour, the scientists studied their nests for a period of time. They found that while some of the blind snakes did get eaten by the owl chicks, most ended up burrowing into the debris at the bottom of the nest, where they would continue to live for days, out of sight – and beak – of the birds.

But there was more. Close inspection revealed that nests with snakes in them had far fewer bugs. It turns out the reptilian roomies weren’t just surviving in their new digs – they were also finding food: critters like ants, termites or larvae, some of which likely hitchhiked in from the outside world on the momma owl.

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The surviving “snakes” feed on the insect larvae they find in the nest — larvae that would otherwise parasitize the owl nestlings. Also, the researchers found that screech-owl chicks grew faster and healthier in nests kept vermin-free by the blind snakes.

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