The small owls of winter

Bruce Mactavish
Published on February 15, 2014

Owls captivate people. It has something to do with their big, adoring eyes and intricately marked plumage.

They have an air of the mystic about them as they sit looking wise and solemn by daylight, but by night they become active in a life we can only imagine.

There are six regularly occurring owl species in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are, in order of size from largest to smallest: the snowy, great horned, short-eared, northern hawk owl, boreal and saw-whet owl.

The snowy owl made news this winter when record-breaking numbers of them showed up on the Avalon Peninsula. This Arctic breeding owl migrates south in varying numbers every year.

The great horned owl is only slightly smaller than the snowy owl. It is probably the best known owl across Canada. Despite its large size and bulk, it does a very good job of living mostly in secret close to human habitation. It is the true hoot owl. This is the owl we hear in the middle of night going something like hoo hoohoo hoooo hoo. Is there a better sound to fall asleep to?

Great horned owls eat rabbits. They love rabbits, but also eat mice and rats when available.

The short-eared owl is a daytime owl. It looks lighter than air as it flies like a huge moth over open coastal barrens and inland bogs hoping to surprise a vole or maybe a small bird. They can be locally common on both the Newfoundland and Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle when meadow vole populations reach peaks in their cycle.

Unlike the other owls which are year-round residents in the province, short-eared owls migrate to the United States, where there is little or no snow cover in winter.

The northern hawk owl is highly desired by birdwatchers. They live where birdwatchers rarely go, in the large areas of clear-cut forest in the interior of Newfoundland. They are also at home in the natural wide open bogs of the boreal forest.

Most Newfoundland birders have never seen one, even though they are of regular occurrence in central Newfoundland and southern Labrador. They sit on the tips of tall trees overlooking open expanses of terrain, hoping to spot a vole on the ground.

The final two owl species are nearly identical twins. They are the boreal owl and northern saw-whet owl. The boreal owl is about two handfuls in size. The saw-whet owl is even smaller. They both nest in woodpecker holes in the woods. They both eat mice, voles and sometimes small birds. Both are secretive and difficult to see.

They are experts at sitting quietly in thick trees where they cannot be seen during the day. However, in winter when deep snow on the ground conceals the voles and mice, these little owls sometimes fly into the urban areas looking for a meal.

Discovering a little owl sleeping in your back garden has got to be the most exciting bird you will ever see. I am guessing it will happen to one out of every 50 back yards with a birdfeeder once in a lifetime.

It has already happened a couple times this winter in the St. John’s area, with several reports of saw-whet owls. They are one-day wonders and typically it is the day after when I hear about it.

When Pat Rivers phoned me at 10 a.m. one snowy morning last week saying she had a small owl sleeping in the rose bush next to their walkway in west St. John’s, I felt a charge of excitement. Finally, I was going to get to see one of these little owls.

I grabbed my camera gear and drove the three minutes to her house. There it was, plain as day, sitting on a thorny rose stem asleep and covered with snow drifting down off the eve of the roof above. It was three years since I’d seen a boreal owl, that one being in a backyard on Thorburn Road.

The owl was asleep and accumulating snow on its head. It could see me through very narrow slits in the eyes. The little owls are known for being unafraid. It was a wonderful sight.

I went back to the car to get a different lens for the camera. When I came back it was gone! But not to worry, it was in a larch tree at the corner of the property, the same tree that was supporting the birdfeeder.

We’ve never actually seen one of these little owls catch a bird, but they do show an interest in them. It was still acting sleepy as a little flock of juncos and chickadees danced in the branches around the little owl, scolding it with alarm calls. They sense the owl is danger, but approach the motionless blob in the tree far more closely than they would a hawk.

The owl appears to pay them no heed. Maybe it is waiting for dusk when it will follow the juncos off to their overnight roost sites in the evergreen trees — and then, under the cover of darkness, grab one while asleep and disoriented in the dark.

Maybe they are waiting for nightfall and small rodents like mice that could be attracted to the fallen bird seed in the night. But usually there are no signs of small rodents, either, no tracks in the snow and no sightings.

So, what are the owls hoping to get for dinner? We can only guess.

The snow is usually deepest in February and March. Maybe you will be the next lucky one to discover one of the little owls in your backyard. The odds are better than winning the lottery, especially if you are aware of the possibility.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.