Today’s post is from Alistair MacKenzie, our Natural Heritage Education and Resource Management Supervisor at Pinery Provincial Park.
I have been birdwatching since I was six years old. My dad was the main reason I started birdwatching, and he and I spent many hours searching for another species for our lists.
From the beginning I was always fascinated by owls and to this day they are, without a doubt, my favorite group of birds. You have to work hard to find owls, as they are usually solitary hunters and most do not sleep together in communal groups. Many, but not all, are nocturnal and generally shy and solitary.
However, with a little effort, you can be rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime experiences with owls. Across Ontario, our provincial parks offer a wide variety of habitats frequented by owls; Careful observers may be rewarded with impressive encounters with these nocturnal wonders.
How many owls live in Ontario?
northern saw-whet owl
There are two groups of owls in Ontario: typical owls or estrigidae and the owls or titonides. Combining these two groups, it is known that there are eleven species of owls in the province, namely:
Another species is known from the province, but it is believed to have been an accidental visitor: the burrowing owl. athens tunnels.
In my years of birding, I have been rewarded with sightings of every Ontario species except one…the barn owl, which is why it is at the top of my list. of species to see in the wild in Ontario.
Hopefully you can finish the list yourself while exploring Ontario’s parks!
Owls only come out at night, right?
Snowy Owl. Photo: Alistair MacKenzie
Owls are uniquely adapted to living in the dark, but first let me clarify something: not all of the owls on the list above are active only at night.
In fact, snowy owls, great horned owls, hawk owls, and short-eared owls are often active during the day. These four species breed in far northern Ontario and beyond in the Arctic, where summer daylight is prolonged and where a purely nocturnal hunting strategy could result in empty stomachs.
In some years, these species can migrate south to southern Ontario and can produce excellent daytime observations.
270 degree vision
One of the main things that distinguishes owls as a group from other birds is a highly developed sense of sight. Owls have excellent eyesight and can see well in low light conditions.
Additionally, owls have eyeballs so large that they are fixed in their eye sockets. Fixed eyeballs prevent an owl from being able to look around while keeping its head still like a human does.
To compensate for fixed eyeballs, owls have twice as many vertebrae in their necks as humans; The extra vertebrae allow an owl’s neck to twist or turn further and further. Allow the owls to turn their heads about 270 degrees when perched.
northern saw-whet owl
In addition to an excellent view, Hearing is highly developed in owls.. While there is variability between species, owls have evolved to direct sound to their ears in a very sophisticated way that allows them to determine precisely where a sound is coming from.
Of course, like other animals, they have one ear on each side of their head, so if you imagine a mouse running around on the forest floor, They can easily determine whether prey is to their right or left, as the sound will reach one ear a fraction of a second before reaching the other.
great gray owl
Similarly, Some species of owls have a flap of skin in front of the ear openings that somehow shields sound.. A louder sound is likely to originate immediately behind the owl, one cloaked in front.
The feathered facial discs that are so characteristic of owls are thought to be sound-directing adaptations that channel sound past their eyes to ear openings located on the side of their head.
Besides, Surprisingly, some owls have one ear placed higher on the side of their head than the other! As a result, a sound coming from under the owl first reaches the lower ear and then, a fraction of a second later, reaches the upper ear.
If you combine all these factors, a The owl can identify a sound by making a series of simple decisions. – Is the sound coming from in front of me or from behind me? Is the sound coming from below or above me? And is the sound to my left or to my right? Combining all these decisions in a split second allows the owl to find prey in complete darkness.
To take advantage of these auditory adaptations, owls add another specialization to their arsenal…near silent flight.
A few simple modifications to the proven feather design allow owls to fly without making a sound! The leading edges of owls’ primary feathers have a comb-shaped fringe. This simple difference from diurnal birds of prey decreases the waviness of the edge of the feather and produces a silent flight.
How do I find owls?
You only need a few tools to help you look for owls:
- good pair of binoculars
- reliable field guide
- good shoes
- backpack (complete with nutritious lunch and safety gear)
- weather appropriate clothing
- a companion
Scanning fields and fence posts or searching dense stands of conifers can find owls. A favorite trick of naturalists is to look for whitewash in the trees.
As the owls rest during the day, they expel their waste from their perch, which often decorates the tree with a white glow, visible from afar.
You also can Look for owl pellets at the base of the trees! Pellets are compressed packets of indigestible bones, teeth, and fur from prey that owls consume. Owls remove pellets from their mouths once or twice a day and they can accumulate under the shelters they use frequently. A great activity is to take apart an owl pellet (soak it in water with a few drops of dish soap) and try to reconstruct the skeleton of the prey.
Keep a camera and a log book useful when searching for owls and remember Submit your sightings to tracking programs like eBird or iNaturalist.
Not sure where to start your search?
Consider talking to park staff, especially the Discovery staff as they can give you tips and advice on where and when to look.
Make sure you respect the owls. and consider investing in a decent place telephoto lens for your camera; You’ll be rewarded with better photos and reduce your impact on the ecological integrity of our provincial parks..