Photo: The Barred owl, commonly seen at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, generally mates for life.
Photo: Jeanette Rive
By Jeanette Rive
Why are we so fascinated by owls? Is it because it has forward facing eyes that make it the only bird that is recognized as having a “face”? Owls have fascinated people for thousands of years. According to Greek mythology, the favourite bird of Athena the Goddess of War was the owl. Aesop wrote fables about owls. Winnie the Pooh’s close friend is Owl. And we can’t forget Hedwig, the female Snowy owl who was Harry Potter’s pet and messenger. In First Nations stories, the owl represents wisdom and intuition, magic and prophecy. Owls are significant to Inuit culture and spirituality and a source of guidance and wisdom. Some Inuit believe the owl shepherds the spirits of the dead to the afterworld. A group of owls is called a parliament, a term that originated from C.S. Lewis’s description of a meeting of owls in The Chronicles of Narnia from the 1950s.
The Ottawa area and especially the nearby Fletcher Wildlife Garden are home to several species of owl. How many you can identify depends on how many you are lucky enough to find! Great Grey owls, Great Horned owls, the tiny Northern Saw-whet owl, the Eastern Screech owl and the Barred owl have all been found in Ottawa. The Barred owl is the most commonly seen in the dense woodlots of Fletcher.
Many are familiar with the Barred owl’s whooping call: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaallll.” It is easy to mimic and if you are out at dusk and call out to a Barred owl, it may answer or come to check out who is invading its territory. The Barred owl has among the most varied and complex vocalization used both in a courtship duet and as a defence, sometimes sounding like a raucous, maniacal caterwauling. The French-Canadian nickname for the owl, Le Chat-huant du Nord, the Howling Cat of the North, is inspired by these sounds!
Owls are unique in that they can turn their heads a full 270 degrees. An owl has twice as many vertebrae in its neck as we do. To safeguard against blood supply to the brain being cut off or restricted, the carotid arteries run outside the last few neck vertebrae before rejoining the skull just before the veins fan out over the brain. Owl eyes aren’t eyeballs but immobile elongated tubes. Their vision is binocular, just like humans, and they see objects in three dimensions and can judge distance. Unlike most owls whose eyes are yellow, Barred owls have brown eyes. Their hearing is extremely sensitive, and they can detect the slightest movement of a tiny mouse at a distance of about 45 metres. This is due to the asymmetrical placement of the ears as well as their feather “facial disk” which helps to direct the sound to the ears.
Barred owls hunt mostly at dusk and dawn and spend the rest of the day roosting in trees, although they are one of the more active owls during the day and enjoy the warmth of the winter sun. Native to eastern North America, they are slowly moving westwards where they are considered invasive and a threat to other owls. Their diet consists primarily of small mammals, but they are opportunistic feeders and will prey on birds, amphibians and reptiles. They swallow their prey whole and the indigestible parts such as bones and fur, are formed into pellets which are regurgitated daily – just like the way a cat expels a hairball. Finding an owl pellet is a good indication of a roosting spot and if you dissect it, you can see what its last meals was! They are large owls – adults range from 40 to 65 cm in length with a wingspan between 95 to 125 cm. The female is about 30 per cent larger than the male.
Barred owls are territorial and don’t usually migrate. Their preferred habitat is old deciduous mixed forest, such as the woodlots at Fletcher. They mate for life and often return to the same nesting sites each year. A nest can be in a hollowed-out tree, a snag or even an old squirrel nest – no renovation required! A single clutch of one to three white eggs is laid, and the female incubates them for 28 to 33 days. The chicks leave the nest after four to six weeks but stay close to the nest for up to six months, practising their climbing and flying skills, using their talons and bills to clamber up and down trees. They can fly at about 10 weeks old.
Interesting fact: Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and social activist known for helping enslaved people escape on the Underground Railroad, was also an avid naturalist. She used owl calls, probably a Barred owl call, to signal fugitives that it was safe to come out of hiding.
Even though it’s mid-winter, there are many non-migratory birds around. The bright red Northern cardinal is a splendid sight on a snow-covered spruce branch. Make sure to keep your feeders clean and full!
Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and frequent Glebe Report contributor.