Owl Prowls: Connecting Metro Detroiters with the incredible nighttime birdlife around them

This story is co-published with Planet Detroit.
Have you ever prowled for owls? Until recently, I had limited my primary interaction with these majestic creatures to a wonderfully weird board game called Wingspan. Here, players compete to attract birds to their wildlife reserves, and playing a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianu) in my forest habitat costs three rodents. When activated, this 8-pointer has the hunting power to take down birds with a wingspan of 100 cm or less (Successful hunt? Tuck a card to gain a point!) 

(Yes, people worldwide spend Friday nights with their mates “birding” tableside in friendly competition. At the end of a hard week, a round of local beers alongside beautifully illustrated cards and cerebral gameplay can be a real hoot.)

But, on a recent field trip with Detroit Audubon, bundled up in 30-degree darkness, I discovered something as a birding novice that winning at Wingspan can’t rival. Standing on a dirt road deep in Grosse Ile, surrounded by a group of curious strangers, I peered into shadowy woods and felt the rush only two yellow eyes and an answering trill could provide.

Photo: @haley.outdoors / Instagram“A lot of people start their adventure in birding with a group of birds like owls that are pretty exciting,” says Jim Bull, Audubon field trip leader, Fund Development and Environmental Policy Coordinator, and editor of The Flyaway, the society’s signature magazine.

“People have seen pictures of them, they’re associated with all kinds of things, but there’s a mystique around owls that’s enchanting. It’s such a thrill to see them at night.”

He says that most Metroparks offer owl prowls during mating season, which wraps up by early to mid-March. Tonight’s prowl will be the last until November for the society, which hosts a variety of bird walks throughout the year. 

Bull says the large amount of preserved open territory on Grosse Ile provides vital space for owls and other birds to build their habitats. Each December, he and volunteer Bruce Szczechowski, an environmental science teacher at Southgate Anderson High School, participate in the Christmas Bird Count, a day-long community science project led by Audubon, to count all bird species. The national society utilizes the census to assess bird populations' health and help guide conservation action. In recent years, the duo has seen up to 17 Eastern screech owls in one day on Grosse Ile.

Owl sightings

The Eastern screech owl answers our call tonight: horse-like whinney and low trill cutting through the sharp air. From a distance, experienced birders in the group locate two during our night prowl. One perched on a limb, the other nestled deep in the crook of a branch, supremely camouflaged. 

I learn these pint-sized owls tend to stay lower and hidden so they don’t get eaten by the giant Great horned owl. They generally nest in tree cavities or nest boxes in woods, city parks, and suburban spaces and make multiple types of high-pitched calls.

Early morning when the light transitions, is an excellent time to see owls silhouetted against the sky, says Szczechowski. They’re the perfect birds to observe because although they tend to be “secretive” creatures, if you’re lucky enough to find them, he says, they don’t fly off quickly.

Photo: @haley.outdoors / InstagramWalking into the Grosse Ile Yacht Club to meet fellow prowlers, mother and daughter Kim and Haley Harris spot a Great horned owl in a tree just off the parking lot. True to Szczechowski’s word, the majestic bird perches in stillness, surveying all it sees, while Haley snaps a photo. The Duke University Law School student from Westland began birding during the pandemic and glimpsed her first owl in Tuscon, Arizona. Captured by birding, she created the Instagram account @haley.outdoors to share her encounters with others.

“Being outside was just like a source of peace,” she says about discovering this passion during COVID-19. The hobby connects her to new people and inspires her to pay closer attention to the natural world. “There are always things to do outside, always birds to find.”

Experts count 11 owl species in Michigan, though some, like the Barn owl, are extremely rare. The Eastern screech, Barred, and Great horned owls dominate year-round in Southeast Michigan. The tiny Northern Saw-whet is generally seen in the northern part of the state during the summer and south during the winter. The Snowy owl, a lover of open fields and dune habitats, shows up only during winter, after breeding in the Artic tundra.

Winter is the optimal time to locate these birds of prey as they are mating, territorial, and chatty. Most owls scope out their nests in January and February; by late March, females are keeping eggs warm that will soon hatch in April and May. Audubon program coordinator Brittany Leick says playing owl calls is not a good idea when there is a chance of owlets. Instead, now is the time to give the bird families some privacy.

Mortimer, a screech owl, perches on a tree in his enclosure at the Stage Nature Center in Troy.

Owls in captivity

While owls in nature celebrate new life, there are still local opportunities to learn about the species. In Troy, five rehabilitated owls call Stage Nature Center home. Each was rescued in the wild elsewhere in the country and couldn’t heal enough to return to it. The center’s assistant naturalist and owl handler, Christina Funk, was pivotal in bringing the owls to the center in 2018 following the closure of their previous home, the Organization for Bat Conservation in Pontiac.

By attending an Owl Encounter with Funk, five-year-olds to adults can learn about the different owl species and why they each live in captivity, explore their different personalities, and hear answers to owl questions. The nature center has three upcoming dates in April and May that are currently open for registration.

Christina Funk holds Sam on her hand outside. Funk is the Assistant Naturalist and owl handler at the Stage Nature Center.

Funk, a self-professed “bird nerd” and bat enthusiast, says she loves birds of prey, but owls are special. She calls her friends Sam, Arguile (Barred owls), Rito, Mortimer (Screech owls), and Autumn (Great horned owl) “educational ambassadors” who help teach humans about their species.

“I enjoy working with an animal and watching their behaviors that humans are not interacting with as much because they’re an animal most active when we’re sleeping,” she says. She tells about Autumn, who, from her outdoor captivity, interacts with a pair of wild Great horned owls who live in the center’s woods. They land near her enclosure and talk back and forth with her, particularly during mating season. When their juvenile started flying, it began visiting also.

“She was making different calls I've never heard before because she was interacting with this juvenile,” Funk says about Autumn. “And she was stashing her food during that time, I think, as a maternal instinct. It was neat to see, especially for an owl in captivity for over 20 years, that she's still interacting with the wild owls, maybe as she would if she were outside her enclosure.” 

Mortimer spreads his wings on Christina Funk's hand. Mortimer's left eye is visually impaired.

Connecting with nature is as essential for the mental health of rescued birds as it is for humans. During the pandemic, the center began hosting mindfulness workshops for guests managed by Funk and in partnership with regional health centers.

The owls in residence often provide sight or sound meditation to workshop participants, particularly Sam. This “imprint” Barred owl, rescued as an injured, orphaned nestling, began her rehabilitation at the Alabama Wildlife Center before transferring to the Southeastern Raptor Center at Auburn University. According to Audubon, birds that imprint on humans rather than their species have no hunting or other survival skills. Although she lives and interacts with Argyle, the center’s other Barred owl, she seems to relate more with humans than her species because of her formative years.

Sam and Funk have a special relationship that sparks the bird to give a shortened call whenever she sees or hears the handler.  As a Barred owl, her full call sounds like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

“I definitely wouldn't call her a pet,” Funk says. “I don't snuggle with her. But just to know that she trusts me enough to yell out to me, to advertise her location, is a very special experience.”

Keeping owls safe

By helping people recognize and understand owls and their behaviors, Funk hopes to foster a greater appreciation for when people see and hear them in nature. She wants to remind people that although we have technology at our fingertips, we should only play an owl call once or twice in an area because it interrupts their natural behaviors. A constant call can cause an owl fear and stress when seeking a mate or protecting a nest. This is why nature groups are careful to space owl prowling out during the mating season. 

If observing owls in nature, Funk says stress indicators from the bird may include constant blinking or focused staring. Owls with feather tufts atop their heads, such as the Screech, Long-eared, and Great horned owls, will stick those up when they feel threatened in order to make themselves look more prominent or stretch their body to help them blend in. She says if you notice these behaviors, it’s a good sign the owl is uncomfortable, and it’s time to back away. 

“If you're observing an owl, and it's looking around at other things, or it's sleeping, that's a good indication the owl is more relaxed and that you're at an okay distance,” she says. 

Funk says one way to attract owls to your yard is to leave trees that may be dead or dying. Screech owls are losing their habitat because they nest in trees with cavities that we tend to cut down. Putting up a screech owl box is another way to provide a future nesting spot for owls and have the chance to see them raise a family from a distance. You can purchase one from Wild Birds Unlimited, or Audubon offers simple plans to build your owl nest box

If you want to be a refuge for owls, it’s essential not to use rodent poison on your property. Owls die from eating rodents that humans have poisoned. She says putting up a screech owl box provides better control of rodent populations than rodenticides. Keeping the environment clean and planting native plants are additional ways to offer protection. Barred owls and others eat crayfish from waterways, and many owls feed on animals supported by native plant species.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to celebrate owls in the community, Lake St. Clair Metropark is hosting its Owl Fest on April 15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Guests can enjoy a day of free owl activities and crafts for all ages, a chance to visit the interactive owl displays inside the nature center, and a guided hike to view the park’s resident Great horned owls through spotting scopes. Pre-registration is not required.

All photos by Nick Hagen unless indicated otherwise.
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Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller