With piercing eyes and haunting cry, so flies the lord of the midnight sky.
A large bird flies silently to perch atop the skeleton of a dead elm overlooking a woodland glade. Silhouetted against the moonlit sky, ear tufts mark it as a great horned owl, the most powerful of our aerial predators. The owl moves its head from side to side, scanning the forest floor and listening with preternatural ability for the sounds of small footfalls on snow or the gnawing of teeth on bark.
The fields, forests and wetlands of this region are graced by several species of owls. All are consummate hunters, but for sheer strength and audacity great horned owls have no rivals. In Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Arthur Cleveland Bent lists prey found in a single great horned owl nest. It reads like a who’s who of wetland and woodland: “a mouse, a young muskrat, two eels, four catfish, a woodcock, four ruffed grouse, one rabbit and eleven rats.”
The gastronomic inclinations of great horned owls extend even further, however, to include bats, snakes, ducks and geese. Remarkably, a favoured food item is skunk. Fortunately for the owls, their sense of smell is nowhere near as acute as their vision or hearing.
Great horned owls do not build their own nests, finding it much easier to take over the nests of others. In our area the “others” are usually red-tailed hawks, the familiar raptors of roadside perches. Though to be fair, the owls begin to nest very early in the year, long before the hawks, so the nests they usurp are not occupied. However, you can be certain they don’t hand over the house keys when the rightful owners return in the spring.
Though best known for their power and aggression, the character of great horned owls is far from one-dimensional. “They have a dignity and a majesty that is very impressive,” says Kay McKeever of the Owl Foundation in Vineland, Ontario. They form tenacious life bonds that end only when one of the partners dies. A male responds in a distinctly human-like fashion to the death of a mate. “He gets very quiet,” Kay says. “He doesn’t socialize, he’s just simply withdrawn.” The period of mourning can last for two years or more.
Great horned owls are also long-lived. Kay McKeever has followed the fortunes of a wild female for thirty-five years. The owl has maintained the same territory the entire time, has outlived two mates, and is now happily bonded to a third. After one of her mates was shot in the leg and unable to catch his own prey, she fed him for several weeks until he succumbed to his wound. After the death of each of her first two mates she waited over two years to seek another. Then, each time, she disappeared briefly and returned with a new suitor. She has a distinctive call and distinctive behaviours that include using a particular oak limb as a make-out site where she has mated with all three of her partners over the years.
Most of Headwaters country is likely partitioned into a patchwork of great horned owl territories, for these are common birds with a need for space. They define the boundaries of their territories with incessant low-pitched hooting in the winter that essentially says Keep Out! Though very happy with the mix of woodlots, old fields and farmland that predominates in this region, great horned owls are very adaptable creatures, able to thrive in a vast array of habitats throughout an enormous range that stretches from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego. My best view of nesting great horned owls was two years ago in southwestern Brazil. Two downy young occupied a nest in a palm tree.
In our region, great horned owls begin to nest as early as February. There is a method to the madness of nesting at this time of howling blizzards and bone-chilling cold. Their young need long-term care by their parents. Hatched in March, they may not be able to fend for themselves until September.
Clamouring crows can sometimes help in spotting great horned owls by day. Crows can’t stand them, an entirely understandable sentiment considering that crows are another delicacy on the owls’ nighttime menu. When crows find an owl, usually resting among pine or hemlock branches, they set up loud and indignant protests. If you approach crows engaged in this behaviour, known as “mobbing,” you may often catch a fleeting glimpse of the owl as it tries to give the slip to its tormentors.
Not quite as large as great horned owls but still impressive are barred owls. Abundant north of here in cottage country, they breed at least occasionally in this region. Barred owls favour large tracts of forest containing a good complement of conifers. They are very vocal and have a signature booming call usually rendered as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all!” Imitating the call, which is quite easy to do, will often lure these beautiful owls close.
Much smaller than either barred or great horned owls are screech owls, common throughout southern Ontario. Only about 20 centimetres high, with pointed ear tufts and sporting either grey or rusty colouration they are truly engaging. These owls are very vocal, but their name is a misnomer for they seldom, if ever, “screech.” Rather they offer a mournful wail or a monotone trill.
For a memorable evening, bundle up and head into the bush at night with flashlights, a dollop of patience, and a recording of a screech owl call. There is a delicious eeriness to waiting with friends or family in the dark woods for a screech owl to respond to a recorded call. Frequently they do and quite often they light on branches in plain view of the assembled watchers. This is a real thrill and a wonderful way to connect with wild creatures that we would seldom see otherwise, but do it sparingly – responding to recordings distracts screech owls from important owlish business.
Screech owls particularly like old, gnarled deciduous trees, such as beech, maple or basswood with rotted insides. An old-school forester might condemn these trees as “decadent” and sacrifice them to the chain saw. But such trees are tenements of biodiversity. Screech owls and a multitude of other creatures, including bats, honeybees, wood ducks and flying squirrels, find succour within the hollows of their limbs and trunks.
Where such aged giants are few, you can ease the accommodation crunch by putting up nest boxes, an initiative that screech owls readily accept. In the fall of 2004, I scaled a lofty poplar in a friend’s backyard in Georgetown to install such a box. A pair moved in almost immediately and used the box as a winter roost. The following spring they raised a family. Through a birding scope my friends enjoyed the nightly comings and goings of the adult owls and then the captivating emergence of three downy young in early summer.
Screech owls are very aggressive. “They attack like mad hornets in defence of their nest,” says Kay McKeever. The size of the intruder is of no consequence; they’ll even attack people. This is remarkable considering screech owls are featherweights, tipping the scales at a mere 170 grams or so. Like great horned owls, however, the combative nature of screech owls is only one side of their personality. “They are also great lovers,” says Kay. “A bonded pair will spend a lot of time grooming, snuggling and just paying attention to each other.”
Their complex behaviour was amply demonstrated by a male screech owl that lived with Kay and her husband, Larry, several years ago. Named Tiglet, he had imprinted on humans, the first creatures he’d seen after hatching. As a result he didn’t identify as a screech owl but as a person. The McKeevers decided to give Tiglet the run of the house so they could learn more about his species. For the first year all went well. Tiglet thought of Kay as his mother and loved to be close to her. Perched on her hand with a cloth draped over him, he was blissfully content, as if under his mother’s wing.
Difficulties arose the second year. As Tiglet approached sexual maturity, he no longer thought of Kay as his mother but as his mate – and he wasn’t about to share her affections with anyone else, so her husband had to go. The little owl would take up an ambush station atop a cupboard or valence box, and wait until his rival appeared. Then, with ferocious resolve, he would launch himself like a guided missile at Larry’s head.
The situation grew so severe that a hard hat became an essential part of Larry’s wardrobe. Alas, this only worked until Tiglet discovered that he could perch on Larry’s shoulder and gain access to the exposed flesh of his neck. Things came to a head, so to speak, when Larry threatened to “flatten that owl with a baseball bat.” Tiglet was relegated to a cage outside.
Kay continued to visit Tiglet regularly over his nineteen-year life, and came to admire him greatly for his role as a foster dad. Tiglet helped raise many orphaned and captive-bred screech owl fledglings that were subsequently released into the wild. Though imprinted on humans, Tiglet could never resist the plaintive cries for food from his foster “children.”
Saw-whet owls are even smaller than screech owls, weighing little more than the mice and voles they prey upon. Their elfin size and their gorgeous eyes – large black pupils circled by golden irises – make these owls well-nigh irresistible. However, because of their secretive nature, we seldom get to enjoy their beauty first hand. Nor are they abundant in our region, preferring the bogs and conifers of the Canadian Shield. Some do live here, though; and while I was surveying owls in Caledon for the breeding-bird atlas project, a saw-whet owl responded to a taped call by flying headlong toward my face. I nearly fell over backwards, believing at first that I was under assault by a large bat.
Most saw-whets migrate south out of Ontario in the fall, but some do remain behind. If you are very lucky, you might find one by examining the trunks and branches of conifers in winter for owl poop, euphemistically called “whitewash,” which accumulates under their favourite winter perches. If you peer intently among the branches above, you may eventually make out the form of a well-camouflaged owl. If you do spot one, you may be treated to a memorable close-up, because saw-whets do not seem to include humans within their pantheon of enemies. (Still, approaching closely should be done judiciously.)
Long-eared owls, also rare Headwaters inhabitants, can be found by searching for whitewash. These medium-sized owls sometimes form winter aggregations in pine plantations. They roost beside the trunks of the pines and stretch out their bodies when alarmed, becoming almost one with the bark.
Owls have many survival challenges, from disease to food scarcity, to extreme weather conditions. And they must also contend with the slings and arrows of human activity. Roads are conduits of death for owls. Grassy verges and cast-off garbage along roadsides attract rodents, and where the rodents go, so go owls.
Most of the injured owls received by the Owl Foundation each year have been hit by cars. A saw-whet owl struck several years ago by a car north of Orangeville was one of these. It was placed in a fast-food bag by its rescuers and delivered to nature-lover Marie Nyland of Hockley Valley Road. Peeking inside the bag, Marie remembers, “I was struck by how small and vulnerable the owl was. I just had to help.” She brought the injured saw-whet to the Owl Foundation where it thrived under expert care. In the spring it was taken to Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario and released in prime saw-whet owl habitat.
Kay McKeever believes that road death has been a major factor in the decline of ground-nesting short-eared owls. These denizens of meadows and marshes were formerly more common in the province. Now they have declined to such an extent that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has designated them a species of “Special Concern.”
Small numbers can still found in this area, though. Linda McLaren (this magazine’s Headwaters Sketchbook contributor) enjoyed watching several pairs of short-eared owls in Amaranth Township in the spring of 2001. At least some of them bred successfully. Tellingly, she also found a dead one on the road that December.
Great gray owls, magnificent northern owls with wingspans wider than those of great horned owls also suffer tragic road mortality. In the winter of 2004/05 hungry great gray owls streamed out of the boreal forest of Manitoba and northwestern Ontario to seek food in the south, exciting birders throughout the province and beyond.
The delight felt by bird watchers was not shared by the owls however. Desperate for food they descended on roadsides and they were killed in large numbers. Kay McKeever believes that 3,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of great gray owls that died in Ontario that winter, victims of starvation and roadkill.
Great gray owls and two other northern owls, the boreal owl and the hawk owl, are rare winter visitors to southern Ontario. More frequent is another northern wanderer, the snowy owl.
Adapted to Canada’s high arctic these owls fly thousands of kilometres to reach us. In their snow-white plumage they are surpassingly beautiful. They appear in our region only when the lemming populations on the tundra are at low ebb, and the owls’ quest for food drives them south where they seek fields and meadows reminiscent of their treeless arctic home.
As daytime feeders, snowy owls don’t rely on hearing as their nocturnal counterparts do, but on their superlative vision to find small mammals atop snowy terrain. Fluffy white cats need to be wary when snowy owls are around, according to Kay McKeever. Such felines remind the owls of the good eats back home – white-furred arctic hare and arctic foxes.
There is a wondrous panoply of owls that co-exist with us in Ontario. Diverse and charismatic, some carry on their affairs by night, others by day. Some can hunt guided solely by hearing, others rely on their extreme visual acuity. Some fly like falcons, others flutter like giant moths. Some wander thousands of kilometres, others stay close to the hearth throughout long lives. Ferocious killers and gentle lovers, they are endlessly fascinating.
I am indebted to Kay McKeever for sharing her wonderful stories and encyclopedic knowledge of owls with me. Kay and her late husband, Larry McKeever, began caring for owls in 1964. Now, over four decades later, the Owl Foundation is one of the pre-eminent owl breeding and rehabilitation centres in North America. Kay and her dedicated staff receive injured owls from all over the continent. Those too far gone to be saved are humanely euthanized. Those that stand a chance of survival in the wild are rehabilitated and released. Others that have sustained permanent injuries, such as irreparable wing or eye damage, become residents at the foundation where they enjoy excellent care, spacious living quarters and the opportunity, if able, to breed. I salute Kay’s passion and her inspiring commitment to owl conservation.
Find the Owl Foundation at www.theowlfoundation.ca. Owl sponsorships are available for a minimum donation of $50. Donors enjoy the privilege of taking part in an annual fall tour of the Owl Foundation facilities.