By Chris Pickup

Not just people visited Selkirk’s Gasfest recently. James Cowan of Canadian Raptor Conservancy just the other side of Port Dover brought some raptors to inform and entertain the crowd.

Cowan explained there are five species of raptors and invited his audience to name them. Surprisingly, it was the children who came up with most of the answers: eagles,  hawks,  owls, vultures and falcons.

All birds of prey eat meat, Cowan said, but they use their feet to catch the their prey not their beaks as other birds do.

The first bird he brought out to show was Elaine, a 21 year old red tail hawk. They find much of their food in ditches, he explained, before Elaine suddenly took flight straight up into a nearby tree from where she appeared to tease her trainer by snatching the lure he tossed to her before flying to another branch.

Several lures later she finally succumbed to his charms and flew down to his hand and back to confinement.

The next bird was a 15 week old baby great horned owl, at full growth the largest bird to inhabit this area. You can tell its age, Cowan explained, by the fact it only has one horn just showing, and the other still waiting to appear. 

Owls can’t move their eyes from side to side but instead swivel their heads 180 degrees to view their surroundings. The great horned owl has huge feet with talons that require 28 lbs pressure to open. With no sense of smell, their favourite food is skunk.

On to the Harris’s hawk which is not native to Ontario but hails from Mexico and the U.S. arid southwest. 

These birds are unique among hawks, which usually hunt alone. Harris’s hawks hunt together in a pack, which enables them to capture very large prey. They are also known to stack on each other’s shoulders. These social birds also nest in groups.

Cowan showed us the eastern screech-owl, common in this area, a tiny bird no bigger than a pint glass which can weigh under a quarter of a pound.

Then there is the king of southern Ontario raptors, the bald eagle, with a wingspan ranging from 6.5 feet to nine feet. In 1980 this species was just about non-existent here with zero nests. But as governments and conservationists got serious about cleaning up waterways the bald eagle came back and in 2009 was taken off the endangered species registry. 

They nest along water ways and fish the 250,000 freshwater lakes in Ontario, as well as eating waterfowl. The banning of lead pellets for waterfowl hunting was the impetus for the birds’ return, Cowan told us.