Wild Files: It’s our Nature

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As we wind down from all the Halloween fun in October, let’s pay homage to one more winged friend that can often complement the season: the owl. 

With over 200 species of owls across the globe, one of the most common species we see flying over the unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa Peoples and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples of B.C., is the great horned owl, also known as the tiger or hoot owl.

Great horned owls are the second largest owl in North America, next to the snowy owl, but they are the heaviest. They are typically over 60 cm in height and can weigh up to three kg, and have a wingspan of 1.4 metres. The majestic birds are very adaptable and call a number of places home including forests, wetlands, grassland, cities, deserts, the Arctic and the tropics. 

Known for their large, piercing eyes that can see a great distance and said to act as a telephoto lens for them, great horned owls also have large heads and barrel-shaped bodies. They are multi-coloured brown with darker markings on their broad wings, making it perfect for them to camouflage amongst the trees. They all have a white throat patch and a facial disc which are either reddish-brown or gray in colour. While this species doesn’t have horns, they do have tufts of feathers around their facial disc called plumicorns; their purpose remains unknown. Both their beak and talons are a dark gray and the latter can pick up small animals such as cats, some small dogs and skunks.

While they don’t have many natural predators, owls’ biggest prey and favourite things to dine on are members of the rodent family: rabbits, hares, voles, rats, or mice. But they will think outside their typical menu if they see another small animal they can overtake when hunger strikes. In the wild, great horned owls live up to 28 years but in captivity some have lived to be 50. 

The Parliament

Seeing a group of owls together can be referred to as a parliament. They’re also called a silence, as owls are ninjas in flight and when hunting for prey. Like many winged species there is no name to distinguish the gender, but like many birds, the females are the larger of the two. Much like the raven or crow, depending on your beliefs, seeing a parliament overhead can either bring bad juju and can signify either the upcoming death of someone close or an important public figure. Great horned owls are quite swift for their size and shape and can reach speeds of up to 65 km per hour in flight.

Giving a hoot

Don’t be alarmed by a hoot in the night or any time of day: it is how owls communicate with each other and more importantly, attract a mate. Like other male birds, the owl looks for love in the fall and attracts the female with wooing hoots, along with an invite to a suitable nest and food. Male owls are normally loners until they send out their call for love. Once the female accepts the edible offering, the passion begins followed by cuddling and preening each other. All owl species are known to go the distance and mate for life.  A mother owl will lay three to four white eggs in the late winter months of January or February and will incubate them for 37 days. Baby owls, called fledglings or owlets, are quite fluffy and when first hatched, are dependent on their mothers for everything and like to stick close to their siblings.

Word to the Wise

In many Indigenous cultures, all species of owls signify and represent intuition, prophecy, and wisdom. They are viewed as messengers and have been looked to for insight and a connection to the spirit world by many First Nation healers over time. They are said to be very observant thoughtful creatures and loyal listeners.