What a hoot! 10 fun facts about owls on P.E.I.

Nocturnal and mysterious, owls on P.E.I. are more likely to be heard than seen. Gary Schneider, who runs the MacPhail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in Orwell, P.E.I., shared his expertise and passion for owls.

'We really don't know much about them and everybody has myths about them'

This baby barred owl in P.E.I. still has some of his fluffy down. (Submitted by MacPhail Woods)

Have you ever seen an owl? If not, you're not alone. 

"We really don't know much about them and everybody has myths about them," shares Gary Schneider, who runs the MacPhail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in Orwell, P.E.I.

Myths include: they can spin their head all the way around (not true — having a spine counts that out) and you can make them into pets (not true — thanks Harry Potter).

Schneider agreed to share his owl expertise and passion with us. 

"They're one of my favourite birds, as far as a family of birds goes," said Schneider.

1. Whoo are you? 

According to Nature P.E.I.'s latest survey, at least eight species of owls have been seen here including short-eared, boreal and northern saw-whet owls.

Barred and great horned owls are the only species that call P.E.I. home year-round, Schneider said. Others including snowy owls travel down from northern Canada or up from southern climes to nest here.

2. They will come when called

Calling owls is one of the only ways you are likely to see them, Schneider said. 

For years Schneider has been leading what he calls "owl prowls" in spring in the woods in Orwell — a show and tell session followed by a walk in the woods where visitors can try their hand at calling for owls. The walks are popular — 120 people came out to one recent session.

For us it was a Christmas miracle to have been that close to such a majestic creature.— Loanne MacKay 

"Any time I'm out, pretty much anywhere that has forest, day or night, I'm calling them," he shared.

He's seen as many as 400 barred owls on P.E.I. this way. They'll fly overheard or land in a tree as close as 15 feet away, and sometimes call back too. 

"They're curious to see who's in their territory," he said. 

But nothing is guaranteed: "They're like cats in some ways — they keep you humble because they won't come all the time."

3. They're silent fliers

"Owls fly absolutely silently, it's quite amazing," said Schneider.

It's the way their wings have evolved so they can sneak up on prey.

Spotting critters in Vancouver can be a fun activity — but there's a few tricks to the trade. (Donna Martin )

"Instead of sort of knifing through the air like a jet does and makes a lot of noise, they actually diffuse that air coming through," he said.

A barred owl probably has a wing span of three-and-a-half-feet. 

4. What's for dinner?

Owls eat mice, shrews, voles — any kind of rodent. And they rob other birds' nests, eating the eggs and young. 

Owls are opportunistic too — they'll feast on roadkill, which can result in death by traffic.

Most owls are nocturnal, hunting at night, although some species like snowy owls can often be seen in the daytime. 

5. They nest in cavities

"If you love these birds, and people do ... you have to fall in love with forests, because they're together. We need that habitat for them," he said. 

This barred owl is one species of owl that stays on P.E.I. year-round. (Submitted by MacPhail Woods )

Most owls — barred, great horned and saw whets — need large old trees, preferring trunks with gashes from lightning strikes or holes that woodpeckers have already bored.

Some nest in grassland such as hay fields, which can present problems for the owls when it's time to harvest. 

6. Two's company

Barred owls have two young per year, Schneider said, beginning to nest in February. The parents, who remain together, feed the young until they can fly on their own. The young will sit on a branch near the nest while the parents fly back and forth to feed them. 

This can present a great opportunity to watch them, Schneider said.

7. Their hearing is off the charts

"If you Google a great horned owl hunting, I think it'll change your life," Schneider said. "Their success in hunting is based on their ears." 

Boreal owls like this one can sometimes be found on P.E.I. (Donna Martin )

While in flight, owls tip their heads to aim their ears toward the ground, pinpointing the location of a moving rodent under metres of snow. 

"Then they just dive for it with their talons out," said Schneider. 

8. They regurgitate waste

Owls swallow their prey whole and digest what they need, regurgitating what they don't. The leftover "pellets" look like a long hairball or cigar, and include whole skeletons and feathers.

Schneider orders in sterilized owl pellets that kids love to dissect — it's one of the most popular summer camp activities at MacPhail Woods.

9. The Harry Potter effect

People have wanted to domesticate owls since the popular Harry Potter franchise introduced readers to Harry's pet owl, Hedwig. 

At least eight species of owls have been seen on P.E.I. (Donna Martin )

Schneider discourages any discussion of this — owls' large beaks and "incredible talons" should be avoided, he said. Some owls have even been known to attack.
 
"It's not the best thing to be doing for wildlife, because then you are trying to tame something," he said, which is unnatural. "We don't have enough wild creatures here." 

10 . Islanders used to shoot them

Decades ago Islanders used to shoot owls because they believed owls were eating their chickens, which is likely not true, said Schneider. Owls are much more likely to eat things that pester chickens, such as mice. 

Tanya Howatt got up close to this snowy owl in Borden-Carleton, P.E.I. (Submitted by Tanya Howatt)

"There's so much misinformation about birds of all kinds," he points out. 

'Majestic creature'

Loanne MacKay of P.E.I. shared her P.E.I. owl story via Facebook.

"I looked out my front window where I had a Christmas scene set up," MacKay writes. "Underneath a 3 ft. light-up moose I had, sat a huge snowy owl."

The family rushed outside to try to snap a picture of him.

"We were about a foot from him as he spread his wings — probably [a] 7-foot span. We could feel the air from his wings. After he left we found his footprints. They were far bigger than my hand."

Unfortunately the photo didn't turn out, she said, adding: "For us it was a Christmas miracle to have been that close to such a majestic creature."

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca