FEATURE

The dark art of finding who's hooting the night away in Manitoba forests

Christian Artuso packs a long-lens camera and binoculars into the car just in case, but it's his headlamp and ears that will really come in handy when trying to locate elusive owls in the dark in eastern Manitoba.

Nocturnal Owl Survey still going strong after nearly 30 years of sending volunteers out with ears peeled

After nearly three decades of sending volunteers into the dark with ears peeled, Manitoba's Nocturnal Owl survey just wrapped another successful spring monitoring back-country Prairie roads and boreal forests for owls. 3:01

Christian Artuso packs a long-lens camera and binoculars into the car just in case, but it's his headlamp and ears that will really come in handy when trying to locate elusive owls in the dark in eastern Manitoba.

"We probably won't see very much," Artuso says. "I really enjoy hearing them against the quiet of the forest."

He turns north off the Trans-Canada Highway and drives down a bumpy gravel road that cuts through boreal forests.

A great grey owl perches on a dead tree in an eastern Manitoba bog at dusk. (Submitted by Christian Artuso)

Artuso straps that headlamp on and steps out of the car parked next to a frozen bog. As the sun sets and temperatures drop below freezing, he sights a familiar silhouette perched on a dead tree in the distance. It's a great grey owl that takes flight and hovers over the bog, looking for dinner.

"When you get a chance to observe them hunting … absolutely fascinating to watch," Artuso grins as the owl disappears hungry, its scurrying prey hiding deep in the cattails and snow.

Before long it's totally dark, and apart from the stars sparkling overhead, the only light in the area is a glowing orb that seems to float in midair but is actually hanging from Artuso's tuqued forehead.

He pulls out a pencil and stopwatch, clicks "start" and begins the first of several counts for the night, where he listens silently for faint coos, hoots or other signs owls are nearby.

"Owls are super special … they have a charisma," Artuso says with a slight shiver to his voice as the mercury dips to –5 C.

"Some people say the fact that their faces are like ours — two eyes pointing forward, the human-like face — is part of the appeal. I'm not really quite sure what it is."

Under his supervision, dozens of volunteers return to rural sites like this near Richer, Man. — about 55 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg — each spring to check on owls for the Manitoba Nocturnal Owl survey.

Artuso finishes marking down observations from one of the counts. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Observations of owls, mostly heard and not seen, are recorded and pooled into a Nature North database that tracks the frequency and number of the predatory birds in Manitoba.

The surveys usually taper off in early to mid-April, but because of the unusually cold spring Artuso says he planned to extend the surveys later into the month.

30 years on

The survey started nearly 30 years ago and has taught us a lot about Manitoba's 12 owl species that we didn't previously know. It filled a gap left by other massive citizen science-driven surveying projects that take place during the day and generally didn't catch what nocturnal species were up to.

Thanks to the efforts of nearly 1,000 volunteers since the program's inception, we now know that Manitoba owls are generally faring well, save for the short-eared owl and burrowing owl.

Those species are at risk of disappearing in Manitoba due to habitat loss to farming, infrastructure and the encroachment of human activity. 

But one of the things that lures Artuso and volunteers out into the cold nights every spring is the prospect of maybe seeing or hearing one of the 10 more common species. That includes the palm-sized saw-whet owl that "sounds like a truck backing up in the bush," and the barred owl, whose song sounds like "who-cooks-for-you."

Watch Artuso mimic owls:

Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey co-ordinator Christian Artuso imitates a series of commonly found owls in the province. 1:01

Three of the 12 species accounted for 75 per cent of all detections in the first 25 years of the survey — saw-whet owls were most common, followed by the great horned owl and boreal owls. Great greys, barred and the long-eared owl are the fourth, fifth and sixth most commonly detected.

Passing the torch

Artuso took over the reins of the survey from James and Patsy Duncan after the 2015 owling season.

"It is time for younger, smarter and more tech-savvy people to take over and to improve the survey," James Duncan, the director of wildlife and fisheries for Manitoba Sustainable Development, wrote in the nocturnal owl survey report that year.

Artuso found this boreal owl during another survey on Feb. 11, 2018. (Christian Artuso/Bird Studies Canada)

The long-married couple launched the survey in 1991 to encourage people to develop more of a relationship with owls and conservation, and to help researchers cover more ground.

The unique program that started in Manitoba has been so successful that it has spawned a wave of similar owl projects in other provinces.

"When you think about the cumulative investment — people donating their time, driving in the middle of the night all over hell's half acre — that's a substantial contribution on their part," James Duncan said.

He and his wife are more than just interested in owls. They live with among them — or maybe it's the other way around.

For several years, Nemo the long-eared owl lived with the Duncans in their home and in an enclosure in the backyard.

Watch James and Nemo in studio in 2015:

Dr. James Duncan and Nemo the Owl visit CBC's Radio Noon 3:37

Nemo became a wildlife ambassador that James showed off to classrooms of kids to help explain how eons of evolution have equipped owls with stunning ears, eyes that see in the dark, heads that swivel and long wings that allow them to silently swoop down on rodents.

Nemo died in 2015 but was given an award for all the time he spent swooping around (and educating) kids. The Duncans now have a one-year-old great grey owl named Oska and a three-year-old owl named Rusty living in their home, and in enclosures in their yard that have taken over Nemo's previous role as ambassadors.

Jim Duncan goes in for a nuzzle with Oska the great grey owl during a classroom presentation. (Submitted by Jim Duncan)

Though he's no longer the co-ordinator, James and his wife remain contributors to the survey.

"I went out last night," he said, adding they heard a lonely great horned owl, some sandhill cranes and cold-sounding wood frogs chirping the night away.

"Part of the appeal of the survey is all the other things you experience.… [We heard] a pack of coyotes that, gee, it felt like they were howling just a stone's throw away from the road. I'm sure they were farther but at night everything seems to be amplified."

'Lovable' harbingers of death

Back out in the dark, Christian Artuso hears a saw-whet and barred owl calling at each other on the final point of the night.

"It almost seemed as if they were each angry at each other," Artuso says.

Those were the only two owls heard during the night, but it still counts as a win.

Nearly 1,000 volunteers have participated in the owl survey since it began almost 30 years ago. 'Once you learn a little bit more about what they are, they're actually fascinating and beautiful and quite lovable,' says Artuso. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

"Those zeros are important," he said. "I would call that a successful night out. Some beautiful stars and a lot of fun." 

Though some people and cultures fear owls, Artuso has always been drawn to the predatory birds, and that doesn't sound like it's going to change anytime soon.

"In many cultures, owls are seen as either messengers of death or [are] associated with spirits. Actually, around the globe that seems to be quite prevalent. I've encountered that in Africa and Asia. It's also true here in some North American Indigenous cultures, which I find quite interesting," Artuso says. 

"I think that has to do with some of the human-like nature of owls and the fact that they're nocturnal. Like many things, once you learn a little bit more about what they are, they're actually fascinating and beautiful and quite lovable."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.