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Northern Hawk Owl

How Do I Recognize It?

As its common name suggests, the Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) looks and behaves more like a raptor than an owl.   A little smaller than a crow, it has distinctive black borders on each side of the white facial disk, pointed wings, and a relatively long, tapered tail.  The top of the head is dark and speckled with white spots.  The breast, belly and undertail feathers are attractively barred.   It is active mostly by day.

Is it Migratory?

The Northern Hawk Owl usually remains on its breeding territory in winter but periodically makes its way to the southern reaches of the province.  At times, it may travel as far south as the northern-tier states.   These southward movements are thought to occur in years of high breeding success followed by food shortages and harsh winter conditions in the north.

Where Does It Live?

The Northern Hawk Owl breeds in fairly open mixed and coniferous boreal forest, as well as in bogs, muskegs, burns and aspen parkland from Alaska to Newfoundland.  They are also found from Scandinavia to Siberia.  Breeding in Manitoba occurs as far north as Gillam and Churchill and south to the Minnesota border, though nesting records for the southern portion of the province are scarce.   There are also a few nesting records for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Montana.  Three to nine eggs are typically laid (as many as thirteen eggs may be laid in favourable years) and placed directly on the substrate.  The nests are usually located in tree cavities, or in the hollow tops of broken trees.  Less commonly, they may use stick nests made by other birds.  

Where Can I See It?

The charismatic Northern Hawk Owl, who hunts primarily by sight, perches in open areas on the tips of tall trees or atop utility poles.  Between October and mid-March, they can be found along the edges of the boreal forest.  Some locations in which to look for these owls are East Braintree, Elma and Nopiming Provincial Park.  They can be seen in Duck Mountain Provincial Park in the west, and uncommonly in Riding Mountain National Park. 

Conservation Status:

Currently, Northern Hawk Owl populations are considered secure.  Provincially, this species is ranked S4, or “apparently secure”, however, comprehensive trend data are currently unavailable.  Because of their approachability, collisions with vehicles are a concern.  Increased resource extraction activities decrease the amount of suitable nesting sites.

Distribution maps for the species can be accessed from the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas website here

Did You Know?

Small mammals are the main food staples in summer but in winter, larger prey such as grouse, ptarmigans and snowshoe hare are taken. 

In March, consider taking part in the annual Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey.  It’s a great way to contribute to science and it’s fun!  You can find detailed information about the survey here.