Owls aren’t as brilliant as they look

Owls are neat freaks. And they’re well organized. “I’ve looked into owls’ nests before and seen mice stacked like cord wood…

Owls are neat freaks.

And they’re well organized.

“I’ve looked into owls’ nests before and seen mice stacked like cord wood around the female,” said naturalist Dick Cannings during the Yukon Science Institute lecture Sunday night.

“I’ve seen as many as 24 mice in one nest, and they’re all arranged by species with voles in one pile, field mice in another and shrews all separated.”

The shrews are the last to go, he added.

During courtship the male owl brings the female as much food as he can catch.

She stockpiles it in her nest, eventually becoming so fat she struggles to fly even short distances.

“Owls really tend to attract people’s interest, more than other birds,” said Cannings, who’s been involved in Yukon owl surveys for a number of years.

“All over the world, in every language, there is a word for owl, unlike other smaller species like warblers, sparrows and finches.”

With eyes in the front of their heads, big, round, flat faces and a hooked beak that resembles a nose, they almost look human.

“Maybe this is why they have a reputation for being wise,” said Cannings.

“But they’re not.”

Their head is, quite literally, full of feathers.

“If you were to poke the head of a great grey owl, your finger would sink up to its base in feathers before it would reach its skull,” he said.

Their actual brain is quite small.

“And with virtually no neck, they have this wrestler look to them,” he added.

Despite their popularity, however, there’s a general lack of knowledge surrounding owls.

On the way to Whitehorse, Cannings met a woman on the plane who didn’t even realize there were owls in the territory.

And when he tried to do some research on the saw-whet owl he had nesting in his Okanagan yard, he found there was nothing published.

So, Cannings decided to do the research himself.

Since then, owls have become his passion.

And Cannings can even talk to them.

He let out a big, hooting call, the sound great horned male owls make during courtship.

The crowd was hushed.

He let out a longer, more lilting hoot.

“That’s the female’s call,” he said.

“She tends to go on a bit.”

Owls mate for life, more or less.

“At least as much as people do,” he said.

But if things don’t go too well for young owls and they don’t have as many owlets as they were hoping to, they may mate again.

And female owls, once their young are hatched, often seek out another mate to start a second brood in the same season, leaving their first brood to be fed by the father.

“Some young are more clingy than others,” said Cannings.

“And you can still hear them screeching for food at Christmas and New Year’s.”

The Yukon’s owl population is directly proportional to the snowshoe hare and vole populations.

In years when the rabbit and mouse population is high, owls will have as many as 10 young, while low years will only see one or two owlets.

Snowy owls, which nest in the territory’s arctic tundra, are equally dependant on the lemming population.

“Oh, and if you like your cats, keep them inside at might,” warned Cannings.

“Especially during low snowshoe hare seasons.”

Although owls have big, round eyes that help them to see well in low light, they only see grainy, blurred visuals.

It’s actually their ears that help them to hunt.

“Most owls have exceptional hearing,” explained Cannings.

While humans can only determine whether a sound is coming from the left or right, owls hear in three dimensions, which better helps them to place their prey.

Experiments on owls in labs have found they can even capture mice in pitch-black rooms, as long as there are some leaves on the floor to give away the mouse’s location.

The Yukon’s grey owls have been known to catch mice by diving under deep snow and can catch gophers by punching through loose soil.

“Their soft, velvety feathers help to break the airflow over the tips of their wings,” said Cannings.

“So, you won’t hear a great horned owl glide overhead — compared to the noisy flapping of ravens’ wings.”

Owls’ silent flight helps them sneak up on prey, but more importantly, it allows them to hear their prey rustling on the ground below.

“They can hear a mouse running over leaves, or a rabbit chewing on a twig, rather than the sound of their own wings,” said Cannings.

While most owls hunt at night, the territory’s short-eared owl and boreal owl both hunt during the day, relying a bit more on sight than their nocturnal compatriots.

“You can actually fish for owls,” said Cannings.

“But you shouldn’t try this at home.”

Cannings balls up a pair of brown socks, attaches a string to one end for the tail and ties his mousy lure to a fishing rod.

Then he casts for owls.

“You have to have a friend waiting halfway with a big fishing net,” he said.

“So, as you reel the owl in the other person catches it in the net.

“It works like a charm — but you need a permit,” he added.

Cannings gave another owl call, the shrill whistle of the tiny pygmy owl, which is no bigger than a small coffee cup.

Little birds just hate these owls, because they prey on small birds, he said.

“So, if you’re a birder, like I am, and you’re walking through the bush not seeing many birds, just start whistling like a pygmy owl.

“Within a minute you’ll have every chickadee, wren and nuthatch just attacking you.”

However, bigger owls also eat pygmy owls and Cannings, while walking and whistling, has almost had his head taken off by great horned owls swooping in for what they thought was pygmy prey.

He urged the crowd to keep an eye out for owls and let him know if any of the more rare pygmy owls, barred owls, long-eared owls, or saw-whet owls are spotted in the Yukon.

“You’ll know if you have a northern saw-whet because it sounds like an alarm going off all night,” he said.

“If it finds a mate, it will stop, but a lonely saw-whet can go on for months.”

So, keep an ear out, or maybe buy some earplugs.

To report owl sightings contact Cannings at (250) 496 – 4049 or at dickcannings@shaw.ca

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