Gardening for Birds and Planting for Owls


Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton

That winter’s night when a snowy owl perched in the boughs of my old crabapple tree will long be remembered as a magical moment for this gardener.

Under a full moon, perhaps it was looking for mice or voles? These small mammals sometimes emerge at night in my garden to forage for seeds at the base of my bird feeder. The large white bird with haunting yellow eyes stayed awhile and then flew away—a rare sighting in this well-treed neighbourhood. Owls are fascinating birds with their huge eyes, keen sense of hearing, and silent flight patterns. They are also hard to spot, being usually nocturnal and well camouflaged. Most often, they are first heard with their recognizable ‘hoot’.

Snowy owls, like the one that visited my backyard, migrate far north in spring to the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland to breed. They are diurnal feeders, meaning they tend to feed during the day, and are most commonly seen in our region during the winter months in more open landscapes, such as farmers’ fields.

Owl Species in Ontario

Eleven different owl species live in Ontario. These are: northern saw-whet owl, barn owl, great horned owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl, eastern screech-owl, snowy owl, northern hawk owl, barred owl, great gray owl, and the boreal owl. One of the more frequently spotted owls in the winter months is the barred owl. This large, gray-brown, and white owl with brown eyes inhabits wooded areas and is sometimes spotted in wooded gardens.

Owls Diet

Owls eat large insects in their diets, including moths and beetles, as well as small animals such as rodents, including mice, voles, and squirrels, rabbits, and sometimes smaller birds. To attract owls to the garden, it’s important never to use pesticides of any type that may wipe out their prey. These poisons can be passed along to the birds directly or indirectly, called secondary poisoning, through their diet. Either way, it can be lethal.

Light Affects Owls Flight Patterns

It’s also important to turn off your outside lights because they interrupt the natural flight patterns of these night-flying birds.

Owls Benefit from Late Clean-up

Owls will benefit when you postpone your fall garden clean-up, leaving the leaves for overwintering insects, and wait until spring to clean up the yard. These garden practices will help provide them with food. In addition, making a brush pile will offer overwintering protection for the owl’s prey. Less manicured grass in your yard will provide them with a desirable habitat for prey species. Planting your garden in layers at varying heights, from tall trees down to shrubs and perennials, will provide biodiversity and support owls, as well as many species of birds.

Many owls prefer to roost during the day and seek protective cover in evergreen trees. To attract owls to your garden, try growing these native trees:

Trees Owls Like

Red Pine (Pinus resinosa)

This large-sized evergreen prefers full sun. It will grow in a variety of soil types, including clay, loam, and coarse sandy soil. It prefers well-drained soil.

White spruce (Picea glauca)

This large evergreen also prefers full sun. It grows in clay, sand, loam, and coarse soil, preferring well-drained soil, but will also grow in dry or moist soil.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Ottawa once had extensive areas of hemlock growing as forest. This medium-to-large tree prefers cool, shady, moist conditions and grows in clay, loam, sand, organic, or coarse soil.

For more suggestions, please consult this overview of suggested trees for birds.

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