For the owls of Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project southeast of Charlottetown in P.E.I. the annual series of Owl Prowls in April are a chance to observe atypical human behaviour up close. On four nights, as many as a hundred people, most new to birdwatching, most dressed warmly and wearing rubber boots, walk through the forest, practising their hoots and looking for owls. They’re hoping to spot barred owls, the most common species in Macphail Woods, along with occasional great horned owls and saw-whets.
By April, the owls—which don’t migrate—are active, establishing nests. Because the branches are still mostly bare, the owls are easier to spot than later in the season. Owls often perch in nearby trees to watch hooting visitors, says project founder Gary Schneider, and they do hoot in response. “They’re curious to see who’s in their territory,” he says, “but they’re not bothered by humans, because we’re not a threat.” The Owls Prowls stay away from nesting sites, even though egg-laying is a few weeks away, and the owlets won’t hatch until mid-June.
Hoots are among several calls that owls make for communication and to establish territory. Each species has its own set of calls, and even juvenile owls and individuals, says Schneider, can be identified by their hoots. “Barred owls give a ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call, but young ones sometimes give you just part of it, as if they haven’t learned yet what to say.”
Cottage owners can support owl populations by leaving large trees standing, Schneider says, especially trees that are starting to rot. Barred owls are cavity nesters, and they need a hole big enough for the adults to stand up. If you have a healthy forest, he says, you’ll have an ample owl food supply of mice and voles.
Many Owl Prowlers, and even veteran cottagers, have never spent much time walking in the woods at night. “Most of our experience at night is just walking from the car to the house,” says Schneider. “Once you go outside, you can hear frogs and toads, hear woodcocks calling, or see the stars.” People are often shy about hooting at first, he says, but once someone starts, the laughter picks up and everyone joins in. “It becomes like singing together. It’s quite lovely.”
Macphail Woods Owl Prowls start at 7:30 pm on April 17, 19, 21, and 27. For more details, visit macphailwoods.org. Many other conservation centres and birdwatching groups across the country hold similar events, usually in late winter and early spring.