Young barred owl (photo: Macphail Woods)

Owls in session

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There is a mystique to how groups of birds are named. A murder of crows, who can indeed be murderous. A charm of hummingbirds, who are completely charming. And a flight of swallows, perhaps the best description of them all. But a parliament of owls? This might be the most poorly named. It is meant to reflect the wisdom of owls, in reference to the wisdom of Parliamentarians. I’m not sure either is correct.

The owls that I have met have not seemed to be particularly wise, though they have other great attributes. It is a large family of birds in the province. Some are year-round residents, some arrive from the north when their winter food supply in the tundra crashes, and still others visit in the summer to nest and raise their young.

Like members of any family, they have many things in common. Owls have large eyes, excellent hearing, and strong talons with which to capture prey. They are predators, and in this region feed mostly on rodents and snowshoe hares, though they have been known to eat fish, amphibians, insects, birds and even dead skunks.

But the different species of owls are not all the same. Some nest in holes in trees, some make nests out of sticks, while short-eared owls nest in grasslands on the edges of Island fields and marshlands. Some owls are nocturnal, with most of their activity taking place at night, while others are diurnal, hunting during the day. Some owls hoot, while the call of others is more like a scream or a cry.

I’ve had a long love affair with owls. They are beautiful birds that carry with them a feeling of wildness not often found in this province. The Macphail Homestead in Orwell continues to have resident barred owls, the most commonly seen species across the Island. We’ve also seen great horned owls, short-eared owls and saw-whet owls in the area.

The barred owl is one of our larger owls, with a wingspan of 42 inches. It has jet black eyes instead of the yellow eyes common in most birds of this family. Barred owls are particularly responsive to calls. I’ve seen hundreds of barred owls here, and most of my sightings come in response to the “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all” call. They are curious creatures and want to find out who is in their territory. They’ll come quite close, and I’ve often spent an hour with one of these lovelies, watching it cleaning its feathers, blinking, and making strange little noises. It is always a moving experience.

When Macphail Woods held owl prowls in the early nineties, we would get a few people out for our annual event. Today, we get hundreds of people coming to one of our four owl prowls. This year, we’ll be holding them on April 17, 19, 21 and 27 in the Nature Centre at the Macphail Homestead, starting at 7:30 pm. The Homestead will be open at 6:30 pm, serving free light refreshments. These events fill up, so come early.

The owl prowls have been many people’s first introduction to the wonders of nature in this province. What I especially like about them, besides the opportunity to see owls, is that people start to make the connection between owls and habitat.  If we want to see barred owls, we need trees large enough to have cavities for them to nest in. Every time we see clearcuts and short rotation plantations, it is a stark statement that we don’t have room for these majestic birds.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.