British Columbia

Conservationists sound alarm over Victoria's western screech owls

With an estimated 20 western screech owls remaining in the Victoria area, conservationists are asking the public to keep an ear open for its distinctive call as they aim to bring the bird back from the brink.

Habitat Acquisition Trust says the bird's population has declined by 90 per cent in the past decade

Due to a continued loss of habitat, conservationists say the clock is ticking for Victoria's remaining population of western screech owls. (Ann Nightingale)

Conservationists in Victoria are asking the public to keep an ear open for the distinctive call of the western screech owl as they aim to bring the bird back from the brink.

Threatened by habitat loss from logging and development, and at risk from predators such as cats and the much larger barred owl, the western screech owl population has plummeted by 90 per cent over the past decade.

Paige Erickson-McGee, a stewardship coordinator with the Habitat Acquisition Trust in Victoria, says there are just 20 left in the Victoria area.

'Bouncing ball, whistling hoot'

"They need a very specific habitat", Erickson-McGee told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

The endangered owls, which are barely larger than a robin, nest in tree cavities, such as those formed by woodpeckers.

Fledglings are reared on the ground and rely on shrubs from protection from predators.

The owls also require a lot of space — between 50 and 100 hectares. One hectare is about the size of a rugby field.

Between roads, parking lots and housing, "that's a lot of intact forest that we just don't have any more," said Erickson-McGee.

Hoo, me? Break the law? (Ann Nightingale)

Volunteers with the Habitat Acquisition Trust have been heading into the forest late at night, surveying areas of up to 60 kilometres, listening for the western screech owl's distinctive call.

The bird doesn't so much screech as make a "bouncing ball, whistling hoot."

"We have been able to find five active areas with confirmed screech owls," said Erickson-McGee.

Volunteer help required

With the help of the public, the trust is building nest boxes to make up for lost habitat.

The owls establish their territories around February, ahead of the nesting season in March.

In the meantime, the trust is hoping volunteers will join in with an unusual birding experience.

"It's not usual for people to go out late January evenings and walk around in the forest," Erickson-McGee said. "They can come out with us in the evenings, if they're willing, and bundle up and listen for owls."

The trust is planning a "listening blitz" for February.

Listen to the western screech owl's distinctive call, as well as the full interview, here:

With files from On the Island