The dead of winter might seem an odd time to go birdwatching, especially in a big city like Toronto. The great fall wave of southbound birds is long gone and the returning wave that brightens every spring still distant. Yet wander around certain parks these days and you are bound to see bundled-up figures with expensive binoculars and bazooka-like camera lenses gazing at the limbs of a bare tree or scanning the rippled surface of a bay.
Toronto in February can be a surprisingly good place to find interesting birds. This season has seen an invasion of species that usually keep to the vast northern forests, such as white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, common redpolls and pine grosbeaks. Down at the lakefront, birders have been spotting pretty waterfowl like the green-winged teal, the hooded merganser and the wood duck. In the air, raptors such as the American kestrel, the red-tailed hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk can be glimpsed soaring and hovering, ever on the hunt.
But the uncontested stars of the show are the owls. Winter is the prime season for these quietly charismatic birds, which sometimes come south from their northern haunts to find prey. Roosting during the day after a night of stealthy prowling, they sit as still as statues on tree branches, making them easy to observe (at a discreet distance, of course). A whole variety of species are being spotted this year, from the little northern saw-whet owl, with its big yellow eyes, to the imposing long-eared owl, its ear tufts rampant.
At one waterfront park, a gorgeous snowy owl has been spending its days hanging out on a dock. Photographers peer at it for hours from across the water, hoping to catch it in flight – or some other photogenic pose. Much of the time, though, it just sits there, looking sleepy or bored. At another park in the north of the city, a barred owl perches for hours on a branch, oblivious to all the attention from the paparazzi. If you’re lucky, it will open its eyes and stare.
Owls are fascinating creatures. With their stern, imperious expressions, they have a special mystique. Humans have been enthralled by them for millennia. Paintings of the snowy owl are imprinted on the walls of European caves. The owl was the symbol of ancient Athens and its protector, Athena, goddess of wisdom.
Other cultures have associated owls with sorcery and witchcraft. “Their secretive habits, quiet flight and haunting calls have made them the objects of superstition and even fear in many parts of the world,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Modern ornithologists have discovered all sorts of things about owls and what makes them such adept hunters. Among the “fun facts” compiled by the Audubon Society:
“Many owl species have asymmetrical ears. When located at different heights on the owl’s head, their ears are able to pinpoint the location of sounds in multiple dimensions.
“The eyes of an owl are not true ‘eyeballs.’ Their tube-shaped eyes are completely immobile, providing binocular vision which fully focuses on their prey and boosts depth perception.
“Owls can rotate their necks 270 degrees. A blood-pooling system collects blood to power their brains and eyes when neck movement cuts off circulation.”
Perhaps the greatest talent of owls is silent flight. Their large, rounded wings allow them to fly slowly, without much flapping. Specialized feathers help, too. “Comb-like serrations on the leading edge of wing feathers break up the turbulent air that typically creates a swooshing sound,” Audubon says. “Those smaller streams of air are further dampened by a velvety texture unique to owl feathers and by a soft fringe on a wing’s trailing edge.”
Owls don’t just hoot, as they do in cartoons and movies. Some whinny like a horse. Others hiss. Still others screech. The little saw-whet makes a noise like a saw on a whetstone; thus the name. The young of the burrowing owl imitate the sound of a rattlesnake to scare off predators.
What does all this have to do with the global pandemic, the economic crisis or the price of bread? Absolutely nothing. But we all need to escape the scroll of doom from time to time. What better way than to behold the serene grandeur of an owl?
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