Wildlife

Alberta woman befriends great grey owl

  • Apr 07, 2013
  • 707 words
  • 3 minutes
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When Jessica Yerxa grabbed her camera nearly three months ago to snap some photos of a great grey owl perched in a tree on her property in Grassland, Alberta, she had no way of knowing that it would mark the beginning of a very unlikely friendship.

Their first encounter occurred unexpectedly when Yerxa called out to the owl in an attempt to get its attention for a better photo. The owl responded immediately to her voice; it lifted its wings and swooped down to land about two metres in front of her.

“I thought it was kind of odd, but didn’t think too much more of it until the next day when he was down there again,” Yerxa says. This time, the owl landed just a metre away from her.

This continued almost daily for the next month, each day the owl mustering up a little more courage, each day landing a little closer to Yerxa. Though she may seem like an owl whisperer, Yerxa admits that she had never even seen an owl before.

A few weeks into their newfound friendship, Yerxa was taken by surprise yet again when the owl followed her van down a dirt road. Once they reached the main road, the owl perched itself patiently in a tree until it saw Yerxa’s van returning from the store. Turning back onto the dirt road, she realized that the owl had disappeared; then, without warning, it reappeared directly in front of her van so suddenly that Yerxa had to slam on her breaks to avoid hitting it.

All of this seemed very peculiar, so Yerxa called Athabasca Fisheries and Wildlife to inquire about the strange encounters. She spoke to an official, she says, who told her to feed the owl if she could, something that Fisheries and Wildlife employees often do themselves when attempting to band owls.

“I didn’t really want to feed it, because I know that animals can come to rely on humans for food,” she says. “But I knew it must be hungry if I was seeing it during the day, so over the past two months I’ve fed the owl a total of three times.”

Gordon Court, a biologist at the Fish and Wildlife division of Alberta’s Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and an expert on great grey owls, says that the behaviour exhibited by this owl is usually seen in young birds and starving birds. He believes that someone may have fed the bird in the past.

“It’s tough surviving the winter in a place like northern Alberta,” he says. “If there’s a food reward (great grey owls) can be trained in short order. They are already delightfully tame. This is not the first time something like this has happened and it won’t be the last.”

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Great grey owls will follow animals such as bison to find food. (Photo: Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development)

According to Court, great grey owls can become very tolerant of other animals — and not just humans — if it means that they will be fed. They will sometimes follow large ungulates, such as bison, through the forest as a hunting strategy. The bison disturb the snow in search of food, and the owls watch for small rodents that might run to safety from beneath the upturned snow.

Court does not believe the relationship that Yerxa and the owl have developed is potentially harmful for either party. According to him, a fed owl won’t be any trouble at all; in fact, when they’ve had enough to eat they will simply retire to roost in the forest.

“A lot of people get very preachy on the subject, but it’s no different than feeding a peanut to a blue jay,” he says. “If you choose to (feed a bird), you should make sure you’re not harming it in any way.”

The daily encounters are something Yerxa looks forward to. For the most part, she simply sits and talks to the owl that she named Akin, meaning “the brave one.”

“I respect him enough to know that he is still a wild animal and he is not my pet,” Yerxa says. “But there is still a connection between the two of us.”

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