We're at the time of year when outdoor enthusiasts can hear the call of owls in greater frequency. Cal Cuthbert is a local birder and notes Manitoba has a wide diversity of bird species, with about 11 kinds of owls that are in our area and, for the most part, breed here regularly.

"We have a variety of habitats, so the different species of owls fit into it. Some of the more common owls we have, of course, are the Great Horned Owl, which many people, both rural and urban, are familiar with and they're one of the larger owls. We have the Great Gray Owl which is our provincial bird. It's our largest owl. It's not necessarily the heaviest owl. I think that title would have to go to the Snowy Owl, which is an occasional winter visitor in the winter months to Southern Manitoba."

Cuthbert explains the Great Horned Owl is most familiar to the average person. He describes the species.

"They have ear tufts. They're not anything to do, really, with the ear. They're just feather tufts. But they are one of our most interesting owls. They're kind of a heavyweight and they're not afraid to tackle prey as large as skunks or even domestic cats. They begin calling, usually in about early/mid-February. By March, nesting is well underway."

Most owls never build nests but they nevertheless need them. Cuthbert says they take over the nests of other species of birds, such as the Red-Tailed Hawk, common raven, and American crow.

"They just take over the nest before the occupants get back in the spring, and they're quite happy with open-stick nests, and consequently, they're very conspicuous. That's probably one reason why most people are familiar with Great Horned Owls, because they can see them sitting up in the nest before the leaves and the foliage come out. Also, they're fairly active at dawn and dusk. So, if you're driving down roads, highways, or backroads, and so forth, a Great Horned Owl sitting on top of a post is one of the more conspicuous things."

He notes the male owl is a little bit deeper in its calling sound than the female. They're part of the early spring environment in Southern Manitoba. 

"Another owl we have around here is the Long-Eared Owl. They, too, prefer utilizing stick nests like old hawk nests, crow nests, and so forth. They're not as obvious, though. In fact, they're a very reclusive owl, and you're doing good to see one or two in any given year. Their presence is usually given away in early spring by their calls. It sounds almost like a cow in the distance." 

This type of owl can easily be overlooked depending on your hearing abilities. Cuthbert says they're traditionally like most owls in being very active at dawn, dusk, and through the evening hours. 

"We have another one that's called the Short-Eared Owl, and it's not nearly as common now, but you can see them in evenings over wetlands or open hedge areas flapping around. They look like a giant moth, actually. So they're kind of an interesting bird, too. Like many other species of birds, they seem to be in some degree of trouble, that's for sure." 

He notes they're traditionally seen in this area in spring and during fall migration. Cuthbert explains when the vole populations are high at the south end of Lake Manitoba and Delta Marsh, for example, there will occasionally be a few that will over-winter, but they are a migrant.

"They go and nest as far north as Churchill and beyond. Spring and fall migrations are the best chance to see those guys. The Great Horned Owl is a resident. It sits here pretty much all year round. They occur sparingly as far north as Churchill."

Cuthbert says the Snowy Owl is the heavyweight of all our owls. Adult males are pure white, and females and first-year birds have a lot of darkish grey speckling. 

"In some years, we have a lot. It's kind of an interesting thing because, like all raptors, breeding success depends on their food availability. In this case, owls like Snowy Owls breed up in the high Arctic, in the treeless tundra, and sparingly into Northern Manitoba, but they depend largely on lemmings. When lemming populations are high, they can have a large brood. With owls and other birds of prey, they don't wait until a full clutch is laid before incubating. They incubate as soon as the first egg is laid. Consequently, when their eggs begin to hatch, you have one that will hatch and then a day or two later, another, and then another."

He adds this leaves them without a uniform number of owlets. They vary in their age groups. In a year, when there's a plentiful food supply, all the owlets get lots of food and they'll all likely fledge. 

"In a year when the food availability is minimal, just the first one or two owlets that hatch are likely to make it. The others will starve or be eaten by their siblings, or something bad. It's just nature's way of regulating the food supply. It's the same with our owls, and so forth, down here."