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1/13/2012

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Owls at Tommy Thompson Park

Tommy Thompson Park (TTP) is a popular winter hangout for owls, and for those who seek them. The largest existing greenspace on the Toronto waterfront, TTP provides critical habitat for owls during the harshest months of the year. Ten owl species have been observed at TTP, but the most common owls are Great Horned, Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Theresa McKenzie)

During the winter many birders and photographers visit TTP in search of owls. Some regulars even know which trees to check, as owls often have favorite roosting locations. Unfortunately, the well-worn paths leading right up to the trunks of such trees are a clear indication that people are getting too close for comfort. Over the years there have also been many accounts of people crowding around owls, causing them to fly away and even pruning or breaking branches in order to get better photographs. There is no doubt that people’s intentions are good – we love owls so much that we will spend hours in the cold and wind just to get a glimpse of them! The question is can we love them to death?
If you think that this is a bold or unrealistic question, considering the following story. A Snowy Owl turned up one winter at a construction site in Michigan, where it remained for the season. Birders and photographers flocked to see it over the course of the winter. Not surprisingly, there were many complaints about the owl being harassed. There were accounts of groups literally surrounding the owl, people flushing the owl into traffic, and some individuals even trespassing onto private property in order to get better photos. The temptation to get a good shot seems to preclude common sense and consideration for animal welfare. When one conscientious birder suggested on the local birding forum that people should not approach the owl so closely, he was met with much opposition. People commented on how healthy the owl seemed to be. One photographer, who had clearly flushed the owl, asserted that its behavior of flying around was a result of it being in good health and exploring its surroundings.  In early spring the owl was found dead, and a necropsy revealed that this “healthy” bird had in fact died of malnutrition. It isn’t out of the question to assume that the hoards of people harassing this owl on a daily basis interfered with its ability to hunt successfully and caused it to waste precious energy in an attempt to escape their advances. While people may not have directly caused the owl’s demise, they no doubt made matters worse.
Owls budget their time and energy very carefully. Food is scarce during the winter, and an owl must be a successful hunter in order to survive. Distracting an owl from its prey or causing it to fly away and abandon its intended meal disrupts this process.  A roosting owl on the other hand, is attempting to rest and save its energy for the long night of hunting ahead. Whenever a sleeping owl is flushed, it is forced to waste its precious energy.
Some species like Long-eared Owls tend to be quite skittish and have a tendency to flush easily, so it is important to keep a good distance from them. The Northern Saw-whet Owl has a different defence mechanism; rather than fly away and draw attention to itself, it sits very still in hopes of not being seen. These owls might let you get very close, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they are comfortable with your presence; they consider you to be a predator.  Their eyes wide open and staring at you and upright, elongated posture are tell-tale signs of stress.  An owl should not be focused on you: it should either be sleeping with its eyes closed on focusing intently on prey. If you see an owl exhibiting these sings, simply back off and give it space.
Considering the stress that one individual can place on an owl, it is easy to see how problematic it can be when the location of an owl is posted or shared by word of mouth. It isn’t long before the owl is being bombarded by multitudes of people.  As TTP is such a popular destination and so easily accessible, there has been growing concern over the impacts that people have on its owls. In order to address these concerns and take a proactive approach to the issue, TRCA has developed an Owl Viewing and Reporting Policy. This document was written after careful consideration of scientific literature and various owl management strategies. By following the simple guidelines, you can help ensure that our beloved owls continue to thrive at Tommy Thompson Park.