Science & Tech

Luna the snowy owl
Luna snowy owl at the live owl exhibit. Photo: Christopher Rhode/Fulcrum
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Give a hoot about owls

Gregory Rand is the assistant collections manager for all birds at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. As the resident bird expert, Rand has a bachelor of science in biology. This week he met with the Fulcrum to discuss owls, their population, and some of your burning questions. 

In Canada there are 16 owl species out of 200 worldwide: some key characteristics are their large heads, round forward-facing eyes, acute hearing ability, and specialized feathers.

Most interesting owl behaviour? 

When asked about some notable owl behaviour, Rand responded, “I love the fact that they can basically detect things by hearing it. A lot of owls have asymmetrical ear placement which allows them to pinpoint things moving underneath snow without actually seeing it. Their flat faces helps to funnel sound which allows them to hunt by sound.”

Additionally, “there’s a lot of really cool vocalizations, you can get the typical whooo from a great horned owl and that’s always the sound you hear in the back of the movies. Barn owls can produce this really blood-curdling screech, which can be really terrifying.”

He continued, “Saw-whet owls and many other owls have this protein called porphyrin which is deposited into their feathers as they grow. Under UV light the protein glows hot pink. As the feather ages the protein degrades and it becomes a pale blue.”

Why do owls turn their heads 180 degrees? 

Owls have a unique ability to turn their heads 180 degrees. According to Rand, the reason for this is because “owls have weird eye structures, their eyes are actually held in place by capsules. Meaning they cannot move them, so for owls to be able to see it’s not a matter of just shifting their eyes left or right, they actually have to swivel their head.” 

How do owls nest? 

This question depends on the species of owl, their environment, and resources available to them. Snowy owls typically reside in the arctic. Here it would be impossible for them to nest in a tree therefore, they must nest on the ground. Luckily for them, they are all white and blend into the snowy backdrop. 

Additionally, great horned owls are known for using old herring nests. Saw-whet owls and boreal owls are cavity nesters, meaning they nest inside hollow trees or woodpecker nests. 

Are owls endangered? 

Rand explained that “the great horned owl, barn owls, are both species at risk. In terms of population numbers that also depends on the species, some of them are stable however, a lot of them are declining.”

He added, “owls in general are losing habitat space due to urbanization, or agricultural practices, etc. Some owls fly really close to roads to try and catch rodents and they get clipped by cars pretty frequently.”

What can the public do to best support owls?

For those looking to support owls, Rand suggested “you can always support our research, or support initiatives such as wildbird care centre, safe wings Ottawa and they will be helping any injured owls.”

He added, “you can also participate in increasing awareness by just joining some of your nature clubs nearby. Or you can help by supporting initiatives such as setting up nest boxes, which are useful for locally breeding species such as the screech owls, saw-whet owls, and even barn owls.”

Where can I see owls up close? 

For anyone looking to catch an owl up close and learn about these species here in our backyard, there is a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The live owl exhibit features birds of prey, known as raptors: a Great Horned Owl, Eurasian Eagle-owl, two Snowy Owls, and one bald eagle.

Stuart Baatnes, head of animal care at the museum, discussed the exhibit in more detail. 

When asked about each owl and how they ended up at the museum, Baatnes responded, “so we worked with little ray’s nature centre and they provided the owls for us. All of our owls were bred in captivity for the purpose of education and awareness. Our Eagle Juno was rescued after being injured in the prairies where she lost a third of her wing span. Juno will never be able to fly again and without our intervention, she would not have survived.”

In terms of feeding and care, “we’re morning people, we come here first thing and clean each habitat, change the water, and feed them. We keep a record of everything we do and any information on the animals. We also try to do as minimal contact as possible, we don’t want to handle them or pick them up very often.”

“We don’t use live food, everything here is frozen. To help with enrichment we like to change the arrangement of perches, hiding the food in different locations, and sometimes we change the diet by offering rats, fish, or even beef and this helps introduce different textures,” he added.

For more information regarding the Owl Rendez-Vous visit the website here. To see a sneak peek of the owls and the exhibit watch the Fulcrum’s YouTube video.