In today’s post, Alistair MacKenzie, Naturalist Heritage Education Supervisor at Pinery Provincial Park, recounts a dramatic encounter with an Eastern Screech Owl. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / mlorenz.
We desperately needed to confirm evidence of Eastern Owl breeding in our study quadrats for the 2005 Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.
It was our last chance as the atlas was ending its collection period and I was frustrated because I knew for sure that screech owls did breed in the park, but unfortunately we had not managed to be in the right place at the right time. time to confirm it.
One afternoon, a casual chat with one of my colleagues almost changed that. Marilyn reported that there were several small owls in her backyard, just outside the park. I asked a few questions to get more information and immediately got excited. I gathered up my then-fiancée and a bird-watching friend, and we headed out into the next night, around dusk.
However, upon arriving at Marilyn’s house, we were saddened to find that they seemed to have left. When we searched, we couldn’t find any sign of them. There is no remains of a nest, no owlets calling for their parents and no one looking for food.
We were ready to head home when Marilyn, seeing that we were a little down, suggested we try the conservation area down the street. Excited at the prospect, we immediately got out and parked silently, silently closing the car doors and pushing them with our hips.
We stood in silence for a few minutes listening and watching in the dark. It was a black night without a moon. Then in the distance we heard a series of short whinnies and whistles, and we instantly became excited.
We had brought flashlights with red filters over the lenses. (Red light doesn’t destroy your night vision as much as white light.) We ran to a small clump of trees in the middle of the clearing and stood listening enthusiastically again. More hitching and whistling echoed across the field. I began imitating an adult owl to see if I could confirm what we were hearing.
As soon as I started imitating the owl… all the noises stopped instantly.
I felt a little embarrassed. As an experienced naturalist, you should know how to make an acceptable call for an owl. We stood in complete silence in the darkness. Crickets.
Feeling embarrassed, I decided to try to imitate the sound of a mouse by creating a squeak. I licked my fingers and sucked air through the space between my two fingers and made a series of very loud squeals. More silence; more shame.
In the dark, I think the three of us were resigning ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to get hard evidence of reproduction. But being stubborn, I decided to try one last screech.
As soon as I made a sound, I felt a sharp blow on my right temple. I instantly felt dizzy and my knees started to give out.
An owl had hit me square on the head and dealt me a severe blow!
In the midst of the confusion, I fired my red-filtered flashlight and lights began to flicker around the clearing. My companions also turned on their lights and instinctively fell to the ground.
Above us, an adult Eastern Screech Owl swiped at me with its beak, flying and swooping back and forth, buzzing overhead. We ducked and covered and began a frantic sprint back to our vehicle, the darkness punctuated by flashes of red and screams of fear.
We hastily retreated and left the owls alone. We spent some time tending to my wounds: I had four deep puncture wounds in my temple caused by the owl’s claws.
We were amazed at this impressive 8-10 inch bird weighing an impressive 5.9 ounces!
I suffered a case of owl-induced whiplash for about a week afterwards and spent a lot of time thinking about what would have become of me if we had encountered a larger owl.
A note of caution: imitating animals in the wild can cause stress. While it is exciting to interact with wildlife, you can cause undue harm by imitating or playing songs or breeding calls. In this case, our intention was to confirm that the species was in fact breeding in that area of Ontario. We don’t routinely imitate owls and encourage you to listen to and experience Ontario’s wild animals, but do your part to help keep them wild.