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Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to be an expert at identifying owls?

Not at all. As a survey participant, you will receive training tapes that have the vocalizations of all the target species and some similar sounding species. This way, you can learn the owl calls before you run your survey route. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced bird-watcher, the survey is a fun way to spend an evening.

What do I need to participate in the survey?

Participants must provide their own vehicle, portable stereo (tape or CD), flashlight and compass. In areas without accessible roads, the survey can be done by ATV or snow machine. We recommend that you take a buddy (friend, spouse, child) along with you. An assistant is great for company, safety and recording data. Although not required, a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit or topographic map is helpful for recording stop locations. The main requirement is a keen enthusiasm for owls.

When is the survey done?

The owl surveys are done on one evening on any night in April. The survey starts 30 minutes after sunset and usually takes about 3 hours to complete (not including the time it takes to get from your home to the start of the route).

Where are the survey routes in Ontario?

There are two study areas in Ontario: Northern and Central. The Northern owl survey targets Great Gray and Boreal Owls, while the Central survey focuses on Barred and Northern Saw-whet Owls. The 47th parallel (a line running just north of Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and North Bay) separates the two study areas. The southern limit for the surveys is a line between Peterborough and Kincardine. Northern survey routes go as far north in Ontario as participants are willing and able to go. The farther north, the better!

How do I get a route?

We will do our best to find a route for you given the location(s) you are interested in. However, certain areas of the province are ?saturated?. If we cannot find a route for you in your area, we will place you on a waiting list. We are always in need of surveyors in the far northern part of the province (Armstrong, Nakina, Moosenee). The farther north the better as our coverage is very poor in this part of the province.

Roads used for the survey should be permanent so they can be surveyed in future years, and also secondary for safety reasons and reduced noise levels. If there are no roads in your area, and you are the adventurous type, you can survey by ATV or Snow Machine. Contact Bird Studies Canada for more information (1-888-448-2473).

Can I do a survey on my own private property?

Yes, provided that your property is in an area that needs new routes. You also must have enough roads and suitable habitat to create a route at least 30.4 kilometres long for the northern surveys and 18 kilometres long for the central surveys.

What exactly do I do on the survey?

On the night of the survey, you arrive at your first stop within 30 minutes of sunset. At each predetermined stop (10-20 stops at 1.6 km intervals in the north, 10 stops at 2 km intervals in the south) you play the broadcast tape and record any owls that are seen or heard. You also estimate their direction and distance. At each stop, surveyors record the time and odometer readings, and weather data is recorded at the beginning and end of the survey.

Will I get to see any owls?

There are no guarantees, but this is a good possibility. The Barred Owl, in particular, can react quite strongly to the tapes and fly in for a better look at the ?intruder?. The tapes can often send a pair of Barred Owls into one of their ?duets? and, although the owls are not seen, the sound of this courtship song is unforgettable.

Are the surveys suitable for children?

Yes. Children have a natural curiosity about owls and this is a great opportunity for them to go out at night and search for them. If certain precautions, such as road safety, bringing adequate clothing, blankets, food etc., are taken, it should be a fun-filled night for all ages. Keep in mind that the survey lasts three hours, so it will be a late night for kids (and adults!). But, most children are content to sleep in the car near the end of the survey.

What are the target species for the owl survey?

In the north, we are surveying for Great Gray and Boreal Owls. The Great Gray is a spectacular species, huge in size with piercing yellow eyes and a large disc shaped face. During some winters this species can ?irrupt? in numbers and be seen along roadsides during the day far south of its regular range. The Boreal Owl is a small owl with a large head and long wings. It has a conspicuous facial disk that is light gray with brown-black border and white eyebrows. Boreal Owls are secretive, strictly nocturnal owls that are rarely seen during the day.

In the central Ontario study area, the survey targets Barred Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls. The Barred Owl is a smaller, more southern version of the Great Gray. It is similar in colour, also has a disc shaped face but has dark eyes. Barred Owls range as far south as Florida. The Northern Saw-whet Owl is Ontario?s smallest owl (about the size of an American Robin) and undertakes long distance migrations each fall. This movement passes through southern Ontario and at Long Point Bird Observatory (on the north shore of Lake Erie) as many as 65 Saw-whets have been caught in our nets in one night during peak migration in mid-October. Saw-whets spend their winters as far south as Tennessee.

In addition to owls, surveyors are asked to note the number of American Woodcock, Common Snipe and Ruffed Grouse heard or seen at each stop. The training tape will help you learn the sounds of these species.

What are the data used for?

The data are primarily used to determine the number and distribution of owls in the regions where routes exist. The data are also used for long-term population monitoring. Numbers of owls are compared among years to look for fluctuations or long-term increases or decreases. In addition, the data are used to determine the habitat requirements of the various owl species. This information will help determine whether forestry practices are negatively affecting owls.

To view the latest annual report that summarizes the results of the Ontario Nocturnal Owl Survey, please click here.

Will this survey disturb the owls?

Any survey that involves playback calls can potentially disturb the birds. In this case, the owls may investigate the calls or respond vocally, but this is not particularly stressful on the birds as defending their territory is a natural part of their breeding behaviour. Also, the survey is only done once during the breeding season thereby minimizing potential disturbance.

Is there a fee to participate?

There is no cost to participate in the survey, but there are some costs involved (such as purchasing batteries for the portable stereo or flashlight, vehicle mileage). As a charitable organization, Bird Studies Canada will gladly provide a tax receipt for these expenses. An application for voluntary support will be included in your participant?s kit when you sign up for the survey.

Can I become a member of Bird Studies Canada if I do the survey?

Many people that participate in the Ontario Nocturnal Owl Survey are also members of Bird Studies Canada. For a small annual fee of $35, BSC members receive four issues of our Bird Watch Canada publication, and can participate in as many surveys as they like, free of charge (Marsh Monitoring Program, Canadian Lakes Loon Survey, Christmas Bird Count, etc.). If you would like to become a member, you may join online or, please give us a call (1-888-448-BIRD) or send us an email (


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