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Loving Owls

April 1, 2010

I saw a Snowy Owl yesterday and it surprised me. The snow is almost completely gone from here; I thought she and her fellow yellow-eyes would be on their way back to the Arctic by now.
The sighting reminded me that April is the best time for owls in Manitoba. Some wintering owls are still hanging around; some southern migrants are starting to return; and the year-rounders are courting or already on nests.
With tips from your friends, hard work and some luck, you can see ten different kinds of owls in a very short time in southern Manitoba (Snowy, Great Gray, Northern Hawk, if they stick around; Short-eared and Long-eared as they return; Barred, Northern Saw-Whet and Boreal, if you’re willing to go into the woods and listen; and the more familiar Great Horned and Eastern Screech Owls). – If you wait till late April or May, you can even try for the extremely rare Burrowing Owls.
The owl that ordinary people are most likely to see here is actually the one that is the Johnny-Come-Lately of the species – the Eastern Screech Owl. Winnipeg is at the extreme northwest edge of the Screech’s range. As my friend Christian Artuso discovered in his PhD studies, the Screech is a suburban owl. It sticks to territories with a fairly high density of people and buildings – 20 persons per hectare. And it is a riparian bird; it likes to nest near rivers. So it probably followed civilization up the Red River, arriving here sometime in the last 150 to 200 years. It has adapted well; the last year of his study, Christian found 55 Screech Owl nests in or near to Winnipeg.
Screech Owls prefer to nest in tall trees with minimal shrubbery at the base. That way they can fly in low and swoop up to the nest hole or box, on average 10 feet above the ground. They also like to have large conifers within 50 to 100 meters of the nest so that the male can roost in relative safety and keep an eye on the nest. A nearby bird feeder is an added inducement.
My yard has all the prerequisites to attract a Screech Owl, but they’ve never nested here. There are cats around and Great Horned Owls and raccoons – all dreaded enemies of the Screech. Maybe that’s why they stay away. It couldn’t be me. I love owls!

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