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.
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..
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.
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
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
George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino company specialising
in birdwatching tours. For more info, visit www.justbirding.com
Tofino Birdwatching Articles
Tofino birding article about the Great Horned Owl by Tofino birdwatching guide George Bradd for Tofino Time Magazine in April 2005.