The annual winter flood of highway-injured owls is underway at Hope for Wildlife's rescue and rehabilitations service but earlier and in greater numbers than usual. By early January, 10 barred, two great horned and saw-whet and one rare short-eared owl were in the care of the society's Seaforth facility.
Owls hunt roadways every winter because rodents are easily visible there, but this makes them vulnerable to traffic. Broken wings are a common result, says Hope for Wildlife founder and director Hope Swinimer, but an even more frequent injury is concussion-like head trauma. An owl's eyes are fixed and immovable, which makes a blow to its head dangerous to a bird's sight. Swinimer says 80 per cent of the owls she receives usually show signs of head trauma.
"This year it's early and I don't know really why," says Swinimer. "One reason could be that there are fewer rodents out there. I've heard there is that problem out west but I don't know how accurate that is here. But I've heard from a Department of Natural Resources employee that there appear to be a lot more owls around here this year."
Swinimer says owls have the hearing and strength to take prey through crusted snow if they so desire,
"They're big birds and they can get those mice from under the snow but it's certainly a lot easier when they see them running across a road. But that makes them so intent on the hunt that all else is sort of out of their minds," she says.
Owls have a fierce reputation as night predators, but most are co-operative patients. Swinimer says this is especially true of the barred owl, the province's most common species.
"The barreds are pretty calm, easy to rehab animals. The saw-whet owls are quite easy to deal with too. Neither gets very stressed from having us around," she states. "The great horneds are a little bit more highly strung and that short-eared owl, he's about the feistiest little thing I've ever had to deal with."
A common public belief that owls hunt at the darkest time of night is false, according to Swinimer. Most owls are twilight hunters, abroad at both dusk and dawn. At this time of year, these are often the times of heaviest highway traffic. She says this means it's untrue that drivers can't do anything to avoid colliding with owls.
"We need to watch our driving speeds, especially at dawn or dusk, and slow down accordingly. You can never avoid hitting wildlife altogether, but just being aware and slowing down a bit can be two important things," Swinimer advises.
Ray MacLeod is a freelance outdoors writer. He lives in Waverley.