Winter Visitors and Wildlife Behaviour

article and images by Jennifer Howard

Hope all of you had a wonderful holiday. I don’t know about you, but I’m really hoping the year 2022 is going to get better. It’s been a tough couple of years. However, life goes on regardless and weather plays a big part in that for some of us. So far the weather all over the world has been the worst. Floods, tornados, mudslides, wildfires and wind storms. You name it. So many casualties. So very sad.

This article discusses the trials we humans have created for our wildlife friends who visit us for winter. Some birds end up staying late as well before they head south to warm climates because our weather just isn’t the way it used to be. Cold. And some just get caught and don’t get away. In fact, a couple of birds, a Baltimore oriole, and a few years ago a hummingbird actually survived because of human interventions. Because they refused to let these poor birds die. And they succeeded in getting them through. Win-win.

Our winter visitors are arriving again this year. Regardless of the weather and the pandemic. With food shortages, climate changes, and daylight hours.  All triggering the birds who migrate south from the north, winter birds, arriving tired and hungry can be dangerous for them.  And when they arrive and the word gets out, that’s when it can get out of hand.

Great Gray Owl

Snowy owls and rough-legged hawks are two very sought-after birds. Great Gray Owls are another. For that matter, all owl species are at risk of being harassed by the mighty human. Then there are other birds like trumpeter swans, and bald eagles for instance that are not true migrators, but they do move to where the water stays open, critical for their natural feeding habits. Even blue jays, although not true migrators, do seem to move around. Canada Jays, also previously known as WhiskeyJack and Gray Jay, however, are starting to move further north because of climate warming. These birds cache their food so that they can depend on it to get them through the winter months. But if the food isn’t kept cold enough, it spoils, and they are forced to move further north. These birds nest in March when the snow is still around in the boreal forests, incubating eggs for approximately 19 days. And they do depend on those stashes of food they cache away in the barks of trees.

I was privileged to be a guest and follow a Canada Jay research team one year going on snowshoes into the forest one lovely day in April to check on a winter nest. Three beautiful nestlings were all snuggled into a beautiful warm nest. Mouths gaping for food. Parents nearby watching. It was quite the experience as I hobbled along in the deep snow where I managed to find a crevice under the snow that put me one leg thigh deep, snowshoe and all into it. The team was ahead of me as I lay there giggling to myself, how I was the one to find this deep-buried crevice was beyond me. I used branches of the trees to hoist myself out, the first one being a dead branch that gave way and buried me deeper. Made me laugh harder. But I got myself up, brushed myself off and continued on. Upon arrival, l was greeted with, “where did you go?” Of course and “why didn’t you yell for help?” Well, that would be me keeping my embarrassing moment to myself. And I still giggle at the memories of that event. Yet the man in charge who climbed up a tall ladder to the nest and lowered each baby gently to the students below was years older than I and still enchanted by these little lives.

Snowy Owl in Procyon’s care, being checked over by Dr. Sherri Cox

This year, the snowy owls started showing up in mid-September, some landing themselves in Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres; they were emaciated, exhausted and or were involved in car collisions. They are not used to cars or people where they come from. It is predicted it may in fact be a “snowy explosion” this year, although I have yet to see one myself, however, I’m not out there looking either. On another note, it is also said these owls are declining in some nesting areas, and numbers are way down. If the food is scarce, the snowy owls will not nest that year. Somehow they know their natural food would not support the new generation. Unfortunately, however, when food is scarce they also know they must move, upon arrival here these owls get harassed to the point they lose precious meals and energy which they need for survival.

They come down from the arctic because food is scarce and they have to go in search of a good food supply area. Young ones usually arrive first, inexperienced birds, easily swayed. Unfortunately not all make it. They come all the way from the Arctic regions into the big city of Toronto and everywhere in between. And even on to the other side of the borders. Once here or en route, they are being disturbed from the much-needed sleep they need to conserve critical energy to hunt. Why? All for a photo or in some cases, day after day of hundreds of photos. Hundreds of photographers can be seen lining a roadside or forested area.

I don’t get it. Some photographers get paid (a lot) to take people out and bait these birds so that the others get photos. Perfect photos. Some of you may be thinking, if they’re hungry, how can feeding them hurt? This is why. Chasing the bird from place to place keeping it moving. Baiting it with domestic mice under cruel circumstances. A mouse is a living breathing animal, it feels pain and fear. Exhausting it and the owl. Leading to its death in most cases but not all. Sometimes they escape the talons. But this is exploiting the already tired owls. And the people don’t see it for what it is. A horrible, scary experience for the birds, exhausting. I have seen it, I have had words with people, but it’s not illegal although it should be. And it’s not a good topic, for anyone, however an important one to know about. There are good and bad motivations in everyone, however, due to lack of education, these people don’t realize that what they are doing is very sad and wrong. Learn the signs, protect and respect.

If you see a bird don’t put it on FB. That is why all this goes on in the first place.  FB.  I have done wildlife photography for over 30 years. How it has changed and is sad beyond words. At least keep the location out of your post if you must post it. But still, people out there can identify these places as they are owl hunters. They go in search until they find them. Horrible but true. It sickens me. Ironically, what is illegal in these scenarios, is that they are introducing domestic mice into the wild. This is in contravention of the Ontario Invasive Species Act which is what happens when an owl misses a domestic mouse, but nothing has ever been done to my knowledge.

If you happen upon these beautiful creatures, take photos from inside your car if possible or from a respectable distance. So many nice little cameras out there with amazing zooms. Because if done right there is nothing more rewarding than spotting a beautiful owl hunting in a field or a deer grazing, a pack of coyotes romping or a fox in the snow, stunning. Doing it without any impact is such a great experience. Enjoy and move on.

Learn about our wildlife and observe their behaviour; are they acting stressed? Are they uncomfortable with your presence? They do tell us how they feel. A little screech owl in a tree, for instance, sleeping. The owl becomes aware of a person up close taking photos, it goes slim and tall, it opens its eyes wide, “go away and leave me alone.” It is stressed. If it flies it’s going to get mobbed and expend the much-needed energy it needs for survival. And now it will have to find another roost amongst those mobbing birds. So if you think it’s sleeping, it’s not, its eyes are at a tiny slit and it is watching you. They know. And never use flashes especially on nocturnal animals. Their eyes are sensitive to the light, I know what a flash does to me, I can’t imagine how it would affect them. Most owls are nocturnal. But some like the snowy’s, are diurnal which means they can hunt day and night.  So it is not uncommon to see them out in the open during the day.

What I’m stressing here is please, research your animals and birds before you go out, learn their behaviour and do the right thing by them. And teach others the same, it’s educating people that we need to do out there. So many have no idea. They get caught up in the beauty of an animal or bird they have never seen before, we have all had at least one such moment in our lives. However, we want to do the right thing while out enjoying our beautiful landscapes and all the lives they hold. We are so very fortunate and lucky. So let’s keep them safe too.

Another interesting winter fact is some animals turn white to blend in during winter months, snowshoe hair, ermine, arctic foxes for example. This helps them to blend into their environment to protect them from their predators. But for our snowy owls who migrate here in search of food, if we have no snow. Those poor owls stick out like a sore thumb.

Poppa fox is being baited with popcorn to come closer for a photo opportunity. Feeding wild animals will often be their death sentence as they lose their fear of humans.

It’s okay if you see someone getting too close trying to get a photo, with a cell phone, for instance, to say something. To let them know that the wildlife at hand is appearing to be getting stressed. But be kind. To help educate them and make them aware. You will often get a response thanking you for letting them know. Because they really had no idea. And most do not want to bother the wildlife. They just get caught up in the moment. They just want a photo for their memory. This is sometimes how people learn. By helping each other. Then there are the others who no matter what you say, you will never ever change them, and that is very sad. But also an unfortunate reality.

These people unfortunately give the good people a bad name too. Anyone carrying a big lens is marked. As a photographer who carried a 150 to 500 mm lens, I actually stopped going out to these areas where it became out of hand. Where farmers and homeowners were also harassed so badly, if you had a camera in hand near their home they would come after you. Literally. I would go out there for a nice quiet relaxing day, to get away from everything, maybe see wildlife, maybe not, there are no guarantees, but even if I didn’t, there is always something to shoot. Mother Nature is loaded with beauty. Thing is, this is how bad it is out there in certain areas. Out where these owls and hawks come to find life-saving food. Then don’t have peace to stay and hunt. Even the property owners chase them away to ward off the people. Trespassing, chasing and having no respect. So they themselves can have peace.

Horned Lark

So for all of our winter visitors, and this includes the beautiful little birds as well that show up some years for food, common red poles, white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, horned larks, snow buntings with the occasional American pipets amongst their flock, or that rare sighting that arrives as it was blown off course, jagers or certain rare gulls. Just respect them. Give them their space. And teach others to do the same. Don’t report the sighting on FB with a location. Better still if you’re going to post it, do it after the fact. It’s very sad but winter has become a tough time for our visitors. Tougher than it ever should be.

If you see a snowy owl on the ground that too is not uncommon. They hunt from posts, dead trees, stumps, hydro poles, but might be on the ground from a hunt they missed or just enjoying the sunshine. However, if you see one on the side of the road and it doesn’t fly, is fluffed up, is unafraid of you approaching it, chances are it’s been hit and needs help asap. This applies to any other bird of prey for that matter. Anything. Owls tend to fly low across the road. Coming out of nowhere.

When you see a bird on the road, thinking oh poor thing, well I have a story to tell you. My friend and I were driving highway 60 up north. A chickadee came out of nowhere. It hit into the side of us, or appeared to. My friend turned around immediately to go back. I guess you could say miracles do happen. Because we thought, let’s move it off the road at least so any predator won’t get hit too. Well as she approached the little chickadee, it got up and flew away, its mate followed. This tiny little bird appeared to be okay, a miracle. Thinking of this tiny little life versus a vehicle. Incredible. Thankfully there was no traffic because we both stood there, mouths open, staring off into the bush where they flew. Never in my wildest dreams would I believe that if I didn’t see it. We went a little ways into the forest to try to make sure it was okay. But they were gone. Incredible true story. And a beautiful one at that. Think about what is at stake here. And that is simply put, ”LIFE”. If we had not gone back thinking it was dead, what could we do anyway, it may have been hit, killed. But because my friend bent down to pick it up, its mate nearby furiously calling to it, it got up and flew. We need to hear the good stories out there, to give us hope. To tell us yes, get out and check that lifeless little or big body. They may be alive. Like the beautiful fox found out cold in a snowbank two hrs south of us. Presumably hit by a car, head trauma. Beautiful fox that was very lucky a lady stopped to check her. Treated and released, now free again. So many animals come to us this way. Rabbits, squirrels, opossums, coyotes and foxes.

I really hope that through public pressure these owl harassers will settle down and listen. Sure take a couple of photos, they can do that from a respectable distance. They can. But they don’t. Make it right by the wildlife out there. They are not here for you to abuse. Learn to coexist. It really is not that hard. They have had to do that as well. Watching wildlife is one of the best therapies out there. For all of us. And the best way to learn about them as well. They are incredible teachers. Amazing parents and protectors of their families. There is nothing so special than to see wildlife families interacting, playing, hunting or learning to hunt. Don’t feed them, they are wild, they don’t need us, they need to keep that healthy fear of us for their survival. Don’t use rat poison, because our predator animals on land and in the air eat those poisoned animals. This can weaken their immune systems, so they can get sick easier, but they can also die a horrible slow death. Feeding wildlife you have no control over who comes, this means distemper and mange, raccoon roundworm can all be spread to healthy animals, our pets too.

So if you see any of our winter visitors, please quietly observe them respectably. If you’re on a walk in a forest and feel that something is watching you. It probably is. It’s an incredible feeling I know well. You are never alone. And personally, there is no better company to have in my opinion.

If you see any wildlife in need, please even if in doubt, call us or the nearest wildlife rehabilitation nearest you. To find that go to: Ontariowildliferescue.ca

Or call Procyon wildlife at 905 729 0033 and leave a detailed message or email info@procyonwildlife.com

You never know what you may see during a nice drive down a country road. Getting away from the hectic pace of everyday life. So be prepared, be aware and know the signs of stress or injury. If you’re lucky on a mild sunny winter day you may even come upon beautiful playful otters or busy beavers. Winter is a time to dress for the weather and get out there, explore. Check out our winter visitors if you are lucky to see any. But remember, always put those animals or birds first, if it’s not a safe situation for them or you for that matter, then enjoy the brief beautiful moment and continue on. Your memories will last forever. And they won’t miss that important rest or meal. Critical to life for them.

Happy 2022 everyone. Let’s make this a better year for all.

Jen Howard

Procyon Wildlife volunteer/ photographer

Below are images which were taken by Jennifer Howard of the many winter visitors and residents of Ontario:

 

 

 

 

 

 
Winter Visitors and Wildlife Behaviour