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Giving a hoot on Earth Day: How to protect owls in your own backyard

A male Great Horned Owl named Max looks out of his enclosure at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press) A male Great Horned Owl named Max looks out of his enclosure at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
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The plight of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped New York’s Central Park Zoo last year, showed just how tough it is to survive in a world altered by humans.

The gorgeous creature with a six-foot wing span, piercing orange eyes and tufted ears captivated the world as he flew freely throughout Manhattan. Flaco fans posted social media updates every time they sighted him soaring, landing and catching prey, sparking an intense love affair.

But then it was over. After a year on the lam, Flaco died after flying into a Manhattan high rise. Crying emojis dominated social media. The reactions almost seemed outsized – but paying attention to nature will do that to a person. We had come to know Flaco, in a way. A necropsy showed he had also ingested a potentially lethal amount of rat poison.

Falling for birds – why we are attracted to owls

The attention to Flaco’s life and death isn’t an anomaly. During the pandemic, people who had never been interested in the wildlife in their own backyards began to take notice.

Owls’ popularity has soared in the U.S. along with the number of Americans engaged in birdwatching. A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found a whopping 96 million people now take part in observing or photographing birds in parks or their backyards. That’s double the birdwatching going on just eight years ago.

But there’s something particularly special about owls people seem to appreciate.

“Maybe it’s because they look like us,” says, Denver Holt with the Owl Research Institute.

“They’ve got a big head; they have the symmetry of the eyes, nose and mouth,” muses Holt. “We tend to gravitate to animals with big, round eyes.”

Holt says owls are one of the most widely recognized groups of animals in the world. “They have been so since prehistoric times. In the caves of France, there are etchings of owls scratched on the cave walls.”

And, he says, they make such cool sounds - hooting, tooting, and trilling. They help humans with pests, he says, eating an average of six mice or rats a night. And they’re beautiful.

“Often with bright yellow eyes, it’s fascinating how these birds can hunt in the dark- their vision is amazing at night,”  says David Wiedenfeld, senior conservation scientist with the American Bird Conservancy.

“If you look at their feather patterns, (they’re) very intricate,” Wiedenfeld says. “Owls have special feathers that are softer than a lot of birds. They make almost no sound in flight,” so they can surprise their prey.

Here are six things you can do to help save owls.

1. Keep large, older trees   

Leaving trees is the most important thing people can do for most of the owls, says Wiedenfeld.

Most owls sleep and roost in tree holes which are often found in older trees. Many, like screech owls, will use big woodpecker holes or a hollow where a branch has broken off. Great horned owls, don’t use holes, but build their large nests in trees.

Saskatchewan welcomed back burrowing owls. (Photo provided by Tammy Thomas)

“A lot of people in suburban areas don’t like to leave old trees. They worry abofut them falling,” says Wiedenfeld. “But if you have a place where you don’t have to worry about safety or buildings, leave them so they can have tree cavities.”

“There are so many reasons people use to take snags down,” says Holt. “One of the last things they think about is their importance to wildlife.”

2. Leave some of yard natural or "messy"

Many homeowners strive to maintain spotless lawns with no weeds, no leaves, no brush, no mess. But if you want owls or any birds in your backyard, that’s not what draws them.

“Allow there to be some disorder. Allow a few tree snags; leave the corner of your field a little bit weedy,” says Wiedenfeld. “Try not to have everything mowed as a lawn.”

And, he says, keep a small brush pile in a corner away from your house, if you can.

“It will benefit birds and makes a place for prey that will help the owls.”

3. Put up a nest box

If you’re looking for a fun project with the kids, “a nest box can be a really nice thing to do at home,” says Holt. Owls will often use those boxes for shelter and brooding, especially if there is a lack of tree holes on your property. Then you might get to see baby owls – talk about cute.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great guide for building nest boxes for many types of owls or birds.

4. Avoid using pesticides and rodenticides 

If you’re trying to get rid of rats or mice, owls are the perfect pest control. Poisons may be lethal to rodents, but they also kill the owls and hawks that prey on them.

All over the country pest companies continue to use “second generation rodenticides.” They are anticoagulants which cause vermin to bleed to death.

An owl is pictured at Hope for Wildlife, a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Seaforth, N.S. (Paul Hollingsworth/CTV Atlantic)

“The mice or rats will eat the rodenticide, and then they don’t die immediately,” says Wiedenfeld.

“They wander out into the open, sick from having ingested the poison, and they make an easy target for the owl.”

An owl can pick up a lot of poison eating at least four rodents a night, and many more during breeding season.

If the poison doesn’t kill them, eventually an injury will because they’ll bleed to death. “Any slight injury (to the owl) can cause internal bleeding. It’s a pretty horrible death,” Wiedenfeld says.

The EPA has banned their use in products sold to individual homeowners, but they are still allowed in the commercial market, including restaurants, farms or any business.

5. Use bird-safe glass or decals   

It’s extremely common for birds, like Flaco did, to collide with buildings. The windows on our homes and office buildings reflect the sky and clouds, making it look like safe passage. Collision is one of the leading causes of bird mortality. An estimated one billion birds die this way each year.

One way to combat this is with decals for home windows.

Most are transparent and only birds can see the ultraviolet reflection that wards them off. Many birding groups like American Bird Conservancy are working with developers and state governments to build bird-safe buildings from the start. In fact, Flaco’s death spurred the New York State Senate to rename its Bird Safe Buildings Act the FLACO (“ Feathered Lives Also Count”) Act. If passed, it would require new state buildings (and those significantly altered) to adopt bird-friendly designs.

6.  Become a wildlife volunteer or citizen scientist 

Wildlife rescue centers are always looking for volunteers to help with the care of tens of thousands of injured and orphaned animals every year. When it comes to owls, many have been poisoned, hit by cars, hurt in a building collision, or caught up in fish netting and barbed wire.

Once they’ve lost the use of a wing, or sight in an eye, it’s hard for them to be released back into the wild. Some injured owls become ambassadors to show school children the wonders of nature.

You can also report injured owls to wildlife rehabilitators in your area- https://ahnow.org/

Grab some binoculars and be a citizen scientist. You can participate in counting birds through census-taking. The Great Backyard Bird Count happens every year in February and the Christmas Bird Count You every December.

Scientists rely on these numbers to determine how bird populations are faring year after year.

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