Thursday, March 29, 2012

The awesomeness of owls

Over the past few years, a group of birding friends has been following the trials and tribulations of 2 pair of Eastern Screech Owls in a local park.  The original pair has been there for at least 5 years and the newer pair for 3.  Of course, they could have been there long before we discovered them...

There is something so mysterious about owls that you don't see with other birds.  Part of it is their swivel head that seems to be held up by a pipe cleaner instead of a neck.  The thing that is mesmerizing with Screech owls is their calls, they don't hoot like other owls and they only occasionally screech, most of the time they tremolo, sometimes it sounds like they're meowing and other times they whinny like a horse.  They're tiny birds, maybe as tall as a robin but they can stretch themselves out and when they look at you, it's so intense and ferocious that it will make you take a step or five back!

Unlike most birds, their eyes are in front of their face like a human's.  It almost looks like a human face trapped behind a mask.  Screech owls don't fly during the day unless they're threatened.  Males will fly and hunt during the day when babies need feeding since the female stays in the nest, otherwise, they mostly stay hidden in pine, spruce or cedar trees.  Sometimes they'll be in a hole in a tree and a passerby won't even notice because they blend in so well with bark.

Tonight, a number of us met at the park about an hour before dusk.  The owls made their haunting tremolo calls and then flew out of the pine tree and into a bare maple.  A few minutes later and the male took off while the female waited.  We stood back and within a minute or two, the male returned with a small bird which the female tore apart.  Gross, yes, but it's nature and the term "cruelty free living" is not in their vocabulary!  After her meal they flew to a few more trees before mating for no more than 2 seconds and then they flew apart again.  We left after all that entertainment, but will definitely be back to see them.

If you'd have told me 5 years ago that we had owls in Toronto, I would have pointed and laughed.  Never did I think I'd regularly see 4 owls within 5 minutes, and if we have babies that number could easily triple!

Update: While I'd love to tell you where the owls are, I can't. The "bird paparazzi" as many of us call them get crazy when they find out certain exciting birds are around. We love sharing the owls but feel the need to protect them because of baiters (photographers who bring feeder mice to get the birds to hunt so they can get an action shot) or idiots who go right up to their faces and use a flash in the owls' eyes. One charmer used an external flash in the face of the baby owls a couple of years ago on their first full day outside the nest. Newsflash to people like him: When people get their picture taken they expect the flash, owls don't. We can't warn them that powerful light is going to hit their eyes. Then there is the other brainiac who posted a picture on a large, national weather site and told people where the birds were. The paparazzi showed up in large numbers but by that time, the owls had hidden themselves quite well and we just lied whenever someone with a camera asked where the owls were.

We have to respect these birds. So often they are sitting right out in the open, sunning themselves. Watch them from a distance and don't crowd them. You wouldn't like it if someone came up to you and snapped a shot of your face without warning and the owls don't like it either.

End of rant.