Payback time: Nicky the screech owl vs a ringtail

Nicky, our resident eastern screech owl, lives in an owl box in our backyard every year from October through February. This spring, after he moved out, a squirrel family moved in – a mother and 4 little pups. We’ve told their story on our website (The March 2020 Squirrel Family). Nicky didn’t seem to mind having the squirrels borrowing his box in the off-season; he left them in peace and we assume they were there with his blessing.

One night in late March, when the squirrel pups were just days away leaving the box and exploring the outside world for the first time, a ringtail came in and killed them. The mother squirrel escaped and survived the attack, but there was nothing she could do to save her little ones and all of them died.

Well, apparently Nicky the screech owl was nearby and saw what happened.

Exactly 24 hours later the ringtail returned, hoping to finish his grim meal of squirrel pups, and Nicky was waiting for him. As the ringtail hesitated on a branch, about to enter the box, Nicky came blasting through like a bullet, using the hard leading edge of his wing to whack the ringtail on the head. We have read that owl researchers occasionally get this treatment from an owl and that it hurts, a lot. The ringtail quite literally did not know what had hit him. He flinched and ran for the shelter of the owl box.  After a minute or so, hoping it might be safe to make his escape, he warily climbed back out and BAM! Nicky hit him again. That was enough, the ringtail fled and, 8 months later, has never returned.

We saw the mama squirrel on the deck the next afternoon and told her what Nicky had done. She was still visibly shaken by the loss of her beautiful pups but I like to think that the story of Nicky’s attempt at payback made her feel a little better.



  1. Regarding the face licking: there are scent glands in the cheeks/chins/faces of most mammals. And as you can probably guess each animals has its own unique scent that acts is its identifier.
    Squirrels also have oral glands located in the corners of their mouth and will smell each other’s oral glands while greeting which looks like they’re kissing haha. That’s also what they are doing when a squirrel will all of a sudden grab the face of another and smell or lick it’s face.
    Babies often lick moms face so they can deposit their scent onto mom, which could be territorial like “this is MY mom” or something of a reminder, like “hey mom, I don’t want you to forget what I smell like and forget about me”
    It definitely serves as a kind of bonding/imprinting between mom and baby. And it’s extremely cute. 🤗

    1. Thank you, Cassie!

      We often see the baby squirrels licking their mama’s face while she’s lying in the nest nursing. The baby raccoons do it all the time, too, and we’ve seen the same behavior in skunks. It’s really helpful to know why they’re doing it. The poor mamas lie there on their backs, with most of the babies happily feeding, but one will have wrenched the mama’s mouth open and be giving it a good going over. The mamas seem mostly to try to sleep through it.

      The little squirrel “kisses” are, as you say, extremely cute. And maybe the rationale for kissing in humans is, deep down, pretty much the same?


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