tofino birding - the great horned owl

The Great Horned Owl

by George Bradd, Tofino


The full moon lights up the Tofino mudflat casting a pale glow across the water and mud with nearby Meares Island standing as a dark shadow outlined by a twinkling night sky. Gentle quacks of a Mallard and the wheezing of Widgeon mingle sounds with the occasional louder brassy honks of Canada Geese. Not a whisper of a breeze blows, the frosty marsh grass is frozen in time, the night is the perfect picture of tranquility and peace.

The moon moves across the sky and long shadows fall from the small island across scattered patches of mud and water. A constant chatter of ducks hidden in the blackness lulls me towards sleep and I start to nod off into a dream.

In an instant the whole world changes with the scream of a duck.

I snap awake but I can see nothing. The roaring sound of the wings of hundreds of ducks taking flight and a cacophony of honking and quacking fills the night as birds swirl around the bay, looking like flocks of little bees as the moon shines on them. Settling back down gradually, the ducks and geese call nervously. The plaintive whistles of some Black-bellied Plovers aroused from their slumber echo across the water.

The sound of wings and voice slowly dies away and now an eerie complete silence creeps in like a thick fog shrouding the dark crooked treetops. I hear no talking from the flocks of birds and I strain to listen. I cup my hands behind my ears to hear better and turn around listening. I have the feeling that something is watching me yet I cannot see it and I cannot afford to make any slight noise at all. My ears are my only sense now.

Faintly at first, like a gentle rain starting to fall unnoticed, like a few drips of water not registering on the human mind as rain, the low double hoot of the owl finally falls on my ears. Louder and closer now, the full call of the Great-Horned Owl booms out from the black forest. The ducks and geese fall silent.

A second owl calls from the shadows of a tall spruce to my side. Both owls are soon calling together every half minute or so. Now they are calling from the same place on a little island. After several minutes of hooting back and forth they move down the bay and stop calling. As I hear the last hoot, the moon shifts around and the shining light covers the mudflat like a bedsheet and night dozes off again. Ducks start chattering again and geese honk softly, the bright trail of a shooting star falls towards Meares Island, and I wonder if I have imagined that this has happened at all.

Great Horned Owls are found in the Tofino area most of the year, but are more frequently heard (and seen) during winter and spring months..

They feed on a variety of foods from birds to small mammals and even skunks! On occasion they will eat smaller owls. I have found the wings of numerous Barn Owls under a Great Horned nest. Because the Tofino mudflats host so many ducks during winter and spring months, during this time the owls make duck their specialty prey. Some of the ducks and geese on the mudflats are wounded from shotgun pellets and their weak condition makes them easy prey for owls and eagles.

Owls are silent when flying and can pass right by you without making any sound at all. The usual call of the Great Horned Owl is a rhythmic series of hoots, however during courtship they make very different sounds. They are very protective of their nests and will attack intruders with their talons. One of our larger owls they have two tufts of feathers that appear to be “ears” and hence the name they have. Young birds hatch in February or March and grow quickly spending 9 months with their parents. The cute white chicks soon grow brown feathers and get so big they cannot fit in the nest together.

In times of food shortage, its larger siblings often eat the smallest and youngest chick. The ground under a nest is littered with bones and feathers and sometimes predators are attracted by the smell.

One of the greatest dangers a young owl can encounter will be your car at night. Our highways are inviting habitat for mice, rats and rabbits because of the grassy cleared areas beside the roads. Owls and other birds of prey are attracted to the highways for food. Because owls fly so low when feeding they are just bumper height above the road. You often don’t even see them when they are hit. The number of Tofino residents that tell me stories of hitting owls over the years is staggering and scary. A few tell me of owls flying hard into the side of their car, killing the bird. It makes me wonder how many more owls died hitting vehicles with drivers unaware of the birds. Screech Owls will land on a mouse in the middle of the highway and just stay there in the headlights. The Western Screech Owl was common when I birded in Tofino in 1970, now they are rare. As our highways are improved an increased volume of traffic at higher speeds may be killing most owls before they reach breeding age. I once found 75 dead owls in 35 kilometers of highway on Interstate 5 in California. Most were young birds. Young owls like young children seem not to fare well living beside high-speed highways.

A dead Screech Owl was found this winter on the highway in Tofino, one of few winter records of this now rare species. We can help our local owls by paying attention at night while driving and slowing down if we see an owl on the road. The owl might not move so it may be necessary to slow your car and chase it away. An owl that has just left the highway may return again for a second try at the mouse so don’t assume because it flew away as you approached that its gone for good. Always pay attention to traffic behind you and don’t get hit from behind by stopping on corners or hills.

Just having the knowledge that our feathered friends are out there at night will help people understand how highway mortality is affecting owl populations. Even a few owls saved by vigilant motorists will help our local owl population. If you find a sick or wounded owl put it in a box keep it warm and dry and take it to a bird rehabilitation center. Next time you drive the highway at night even to Ucluelet or Long Beach, remember you are in owl country!

If you are interested in visiting the only place in Tofino where duck is the nightly specialty on the menu, (for owls that is), and listening to music of Great Horned Owls, the Tofino Mudflat Conservation area is good from January to May.

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

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Tofino birding article about the Great Horned Owl by Tofino birdwatching guide George Bradd for Tofino Time Magazine in April 2005.

tofino time april 2005

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