Curious birdwatchers of all ages were packed into the Humber Arboretum: Centre for Urban Ecology on Friday night, clamouring to get a glimpse of the owls that reside along the Humber River—and, in particular, a Great Horned Owl that had been spotted earlier in the month. But first, the Owl Prowl guide, Chris Bialek (a.k.a. Snapper, his “nature name”), gave the participants a primer: A group of owls is called a Parliament; owl wings don’t make a sound when they flap (a grave misfortune for mice everywhere); and they cannot move their large eyes from side to side, but rely instead on necks that swivel 270 degrees. To demonstrate the latter, Bialek placed a large “owl protractor” around a little girl’s neck, prompting her to turn her head as far as she could. She managed a mere 100 degrees—impressive for a human. Bialek then demonstrated their various calls. The Ghost-faced Barn Owl sounded like a woman screaming.
The 30-deep crew set out into the frigid night, pausing at various points to make owl calls through a large cone. Nighttime is the best time to see owls, as it’s when they’re hunting for breakfast. A grassy clearing, populated with moles and mice, is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Owls eat their food in big chunks but throw up fur and bones,” Bialek explained. The group furtively scoured the ground for owl puke—technically called pellets. “I found one!” shouted one woman, gleefully clutching a chewed-up carcass ball. As the group trudged along, Bialek emulated the Screech Owl and the Barred Owl, to no avail. The group started to lose hope. Suddenly, a magnificent Great Horned Owl swooped down and landed on a dead tree branch. He glared at the upturned faces intently, refusing to return their calls. Success.