pygmy owl in tofino

Owls in Tofino - Who Gives a Hoot?

by George Bradd, Tofino


Birders who have not birded themselves to exhaustion during the daylight hours may want to keep birding all night long. Anyone interested in birding in a “Big Day”, (24 hour), birding competition has to start at midnight. Here is a few tips for owling on your Big Day.

The Tofino area has recorded 9 species of owls. Although no owl species are common in our area you can find them if you put out some effort.

1. You must generally go out at night for some particular owl species. Owls like the Great Horned, Screech Owl, Barn Owl and Barred Owl are best found at night. Try to be where you want to find the owls while it is still light if possible, then you know your way out.

2. Some owls particularly the Northern Pygmy Owl will be seen also during the day. Pygmy Owls are what some people call “diurnal” which is just a fancy word that means they are active day and night. Pygmy Owls are quite bold and eat small birds. They often seem unafraid of people, I have on occasion had them land on my head while calling them. One day at my sunflower feeder the chickadees suddenly scattered as a Pygmy Owl dove in from the woods. One chickadee flew frantically into my bathroom window and fell stunned to the forest floor. The chickadee woke up and hopped up on a branch like it was ready to go. Swooping in less than 6 feet away from me the little owl grabbed the chickadee and flew off with it. In fall they will perch on a dead snag and sometime call their loud single toot for hours.

They hunt in wooded areas nesting in the mountains during breeding season and visiting the outer coast in the winter. Most bird guides know that small birds like to “mob” Pygmy Owls so a good Pygmy Owl imitation is an asset because you can attract small birds in flocks to attack the owl. Because birds like to flock together, a Pygmy Owl call will “build” a flock for you as other birds come to investigate the commotion. I once used a stuffed Pygmy Owl on a stick to test the reaction of small birds in Stanley Park as part of a research project. The stuffed owl on the stick attracted mobs of small birds and a few curious looks from passerbys.

The Snowy Owl hunts during day in open areas, in the month of November 2003 a weak Snowy Owl was found on a Tofino beach, having been seen flying around the inlet previous days. He was likely gradually starving from lack of food due to rainy weather preventing him from hunting mice.The Snowy Owl is a large owl that perches on the ground. They only migrate far enough south to hit Tofino every few years, their normal home is the tundra far north of here.

Another day tripper of open terrain is the Short-eared Owl, who like fields and marshy areas. The Short-eared sometimes travels in groups while migrating. They frequent the same habitat as Marsh Hawks, and the owls low swooping flight probably spooks mice into running making them visible prey.

3. Owls are usually more vocal on full moons, and if you can see at all during night hours, the full moon is best for us. We can also sometimes walk around best without our flashlights on full moons so we don’t scare the owls.The moon doesn’t have to be full, but more moon is usually better.

4. Don’t be noisy. Remember the human voice, (particularly low tones you macho guys), carries a long distance and scares owls. The quieter you are the more you will hear and see.

5. Don’t shine your lights directly at the owls. This will scare them and they will leave, and unless you are really lucky your “owling” is probably over. In New Zealand it is illegal to shine “torches” directly at Kiwiis. In Canada we have no such laws for owls but common sense and courtesy suggests that it would be better for owls to leave them undisturbed. You will still get a great look if you shine your beam to the side of the bird, not right in its face.

6. IF you are using cassette tapes and playback megaphones to attract owls, turn off your tape as soon as the owl calls and don’t hammer it over and over again with the sound recordings. Bird cassette tapes disturb birds, and if used frequently on owls or any bird species, may cause the birds to abandon their territory.

Professional bird guides often use tapes to call birds. It is very controversial. Some countries train rangers at university to use them. It is illegal in some states in the us and some of the lodges which cater to birders prohibit use of tapes by guides. Arizona has banned tapes to protect their Whiskered Screech Owl. Many birders won’t hire guides who use tapes and feel that tapes are somehow “cheating” to find furtive bird species. The pressure on a guide to produce bird species can be intense.

Before you go out you can listen to owl calls on tapes so that you will know what you are listening for when you get out there. This does help alot. Give the owls the respect they deserve, use your tapes sparingly if you use them at all.

7. Be patient, its not easy. You might not find anything at all your first couple times.

Some of our owl species are decreasing in numbers and their range is shrinking. People can help our feathered night friends by reducing chemical use on lawns and gardens thereby reducing the amount of toxins in the small mice and birds the owls eat. Owls will nest in artificial boxes and putting up owl boxes can attract birds that may not have a natural nest site available in your area.

Keep your eyes open for those owls that feed at the edge of roads and highways and slow down while driving if you think you see a bird ahead near the road.

Keep your eyes and ears open at night and discover a whole new world of night birds that hunt by stealth and silence. A few simple things that you could do will insure that the next generation will be able to enjoy a night with hooting owls. Help save our owls and show them who gives a hoot about our owl friends.

George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino company specialising in birdwatching tours. For more info visit

Tofino Birdwatching Articles

Tofino Time Magazine February 2005

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Tofino birding guide George Bradd on the 9 species of owl that have been recorded in Tofino. Tips for Tofino owling.

tofino time february 2005

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