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The Great Horned Owl

Did you know that the Great Horned Owl is one of the most common owls in North America?

The Great Horned Owl is aptly named due to the tufts of feathers on the top of the head that appear to be horns or ears. In fact, the ears of this owl (and some other owls) are located on the side of the head and are asymmetric, meaning one is higher up than the other (Lewis 2016; Cornell University 2015). Ear asymmetry typically occurs with nocturnal owls because they rely on their hearing for hunting (Lewis 2016).

Another physiological adaptation that allows owls to hunt better at night is their unique disc-shaped face which helps funnel sound to their ears (IPT 2017; Lewis 2016; Cornell University 2015; FRGZEV 2006).

Although this species relies heavily on their hearing for hunting at night, the eyes of this predator are also adapted to be able to see in low light conditions which further aids their hunting abilities (IPT 2017; Cornell University 2015; FRGZEV 2006). The large size of the owl’s eyes allow them to absorb more light over the larger surface area (IPT 2017). They also contain a tapetum lucidum, which is an adaptation in many animals species that allows them to see better at night time and is the structure that causes eyes of some animals to “glow” at night when light is shined on them (IPT 2017).

The Great Horned Owl is one of the earlier nesting species in southern Alberta and often breed as early as late January or February. This species lays 2 to 3 eggs and both parents take turns incubating the eggs. The incubation period is 30 to 35 days, which means we can see hatchlings in our area as early as late February or early March. If one of the hatchlings falls out of the nest early, the parents will still care for him or her by feeding them on the ground (Cornell University 2015; FRGZEV 2006).

If you happen to see a young owl that has fallen out of it’s nest, make sure you observe to see if there are any parents nearby. If you think the nestling has been abandoned, please call AIWC for advice (403-946-2361).

AIWC currently has a Great Horned Owl patient who fell victim to a methane flare. This owl will remain with AIWC until she completes a full feather molt and can once again fly. If you would like to help with the care of this owl, please visit our Adopt an Animal page (https://www.aiwc.ca/support-us/adopt-an-animal/).

Interesting Great Horned Owl facts:

  • The Long-eared owl is another species in Alberta who also has feather tufts that are often confused as horns or ears. Though, this species is much smaller than the Great Horned Owl.
  • They use nests that were built by a different species (such as hawks, crows, ravens, herons, and even squirrels) (Cornell University 2015).
  • The Great Horned Owl can weigh between .90 to just over 2.3 kilograms, with the female being larger than the male (Cornell University 2015; FRGZEV 2006).
  • The Great Horned Owl can catch prey much larger than themselves and often preys upon ospreys, falcons and other owls. However, they mostly eat small mammals and birds (Cornell University 2015).
  • The talons of this species are incredibly sharp, and hold on tightly to their prey. When clenched, the talons require a force of 13 kilograms to open them (Cornell University 2017).
  • The Great Horned Owl uses their ear tufts to display how they are feeling. They stand upright when curious and lie flat when disgruntled (FRGZEV 2006).
  • These owls are very stealthy. Their feathers offer camouflaging to the surrounding treed habitat and they are nearly silent when in flight (FRGZEV 2006).
  • Many people believe that owls can turn their heads all the way around, when in fact, they can turn them 270 degrees. They are able to do this because of extra vertebra in their neck (FRGZEV 2006).
  • Owl eyes don’t move in their sockets (Cornell University 2015).
  • The call of the Great Horned Owl is one of the more recognizable owl calls and is a series of deep, stuttering hoots – usually 4 or 5 in a row (Cornell University 2015). To hear their call, visit this site: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id
  • Great Horned Owls stay all year long in Alberta and also live in South America (Cornell University 2015; FRGZEV 2006).
  • (Cornell University 2015).
  • The Great Horned Owl is a predator of crows and crows often attack, mob, and chase owls in the day time (Cornell University 2015).

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer

References:

Lewis, Deane. 2016. Owl Ears & Hearing. The Owl Pages. Available at:  http://www.owlpages.com/owls/articles.php?a=6

Cornell University. 2015. Great Horned Owl. Available at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl

Friends of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo Education Volunteers (FRGZEV). 2006. Great Horned Owl. Available at: http://rosamondgiffordzoo.org/assets/uploads/animals/pdf/GreatHornedOwl.pdf

Idaho Public Television (IPT). 2017. Owls: Facts. Available at: http://idahoptv.org/sciencetrek/topics/owls/facts.cfm

 

National Wildlife Week

In 2017 Canada celebrates 150 years of confederation and 70 years of recognizing National Wildlife Week. Each year National Wildlife Week falls around April 10th, the birthday of ‘Wild Goose Jack,’ who helped restore the Canada goose population after it was on the brink of extinction in the early 1900s.

While the Canada goose seems emblematic of the country and the year-long celebrations, did you know they are not Canada’s National bird? In fact, Canada does not currently recognize a national bird. In 2015 Canadian Geographic undertook a survey to recommend a species be recognized in honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial and narrowed the list to the following five candidates:

  1. Gray Jay / Whiskey Jack
  2. Common Loon
  3. Snowy Owl
  4. Canada Goose
  5. Black-Capped Chickadee

Although not yet official, Canadian Geographic is lobbying Parliament to have the Gray Jay recognized as the national bird as part of the #Canada150 celebrations in a similar proclamation to the one that identified National Wildlife Week.

The recommendation certainly ruffled a few feathers with some believing that the common loon—who appears on our one dollar coins—would be more iconic, while others felt the Canada goose was the obvious choice. In any case, it’s not worth getting in a flap over because they were all valid candidates along with many others.

The Whiskey Jack was put forward as the final choice for epitomizing Canadian spirit as a friendly, intelligent, and winter-hardy specimen.

National Wildlife Week and Canada’s 150th anniversary reminds us to commemorate all the creatures and contributions that support this country’s diverse ecosystems. Picking up a piece of litter, using window decals to prevent bird strikes, enjoying a spring day outdoors and snapping a photo of wild spaces all contribute to protecting natural habitats and remembering our enduring Canadian spirit.

You can further support our wild neighbours by contributing your time to AIWC or by donating to the care of animals. Your contributions help ensure that should a gray jay, loon, snowy owl, Canada goose, black-capped chickadee, beaver or any other Canadian wildlife find their way into AIWC’s care we can support their recovery and release them back into the northern wilderness.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

Sources:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-official-bird-1.3853814

http://nationalbird.canadiangeographic.ca/

http://cwf-fcf.org/en/events/national-wildlife-week/

 

Mysterious, Mischievous Minks

At the end of March, AIWC welcomed an unexpected visitor. For the first time in about ten years, a mink made an appearance. This new patient was found near Brooks with a swollen eye and has been admitted as a patient.

So what’s the deal with minks in Alberta? What is a mink anyway?! Let me tell you!

The American mink (Latin name: Mustela Vison) weighs about 1 kilogram full grown. These little critters have long, thin bodies ranging from 65 to 75 cm long. They have small, rounded ears, pointed snouts with whiskers, brown-ish coats and sometimes have white spots on their chins and chest.

In Alberta you can find minks in the boreal, foothill and Rocky Mountain natural regions.

These little weasels are semi-aquatic which means they love to spend time near the water. In fact, you’re not very likely to find a mink unless you’re close to a watercourse.

Minks have semi-webbed feet and non-retractable claws that help them climb trees. They’re great swimmers– according to Live Science they can swim up to 30 m under water!  These little creatures were made for waterside living. Their coats are coated in oil to help repel H2O.

These nocturnal hunters are most active during dawn and dusk hours when they go out looking for ducks, fish, small birds, rodents and even muskrats! Crayfish, frogs, snakes, mice, moles and chipmunks also make excellent snacks for a hungry mink.

Minks tend to live alone but come together to breed. They mate in March with mini-minks born in May in litters of six to eight. Kits become independent from mama mink at six to ten months.

Minks need to look out for coyotes, bobcats, and large owls; predators that enjoy having weasels for dinner.

AIWC’s mink patient is having his eye treated and seems to be getting feistier every day! While it’s exciting to have a feisty little mink patient at AIWC, it looks like he will be on his way back to the wild soon.

Minks are just another example of the beautiful, diverse wildlife that call our province home.

There are many ways to support AIWC in its wildlife rescue and conservation efforts. You can:

 

  1. “Adopt” an animal
  2. Invite our education team to your classroom
  3. Become a friend of AIWC
  4. Make a one-time monthly donation via CanadaHelps
  5. Help us build new enclosures and rehabilitation spaces. Contact us for a donor package
  6. Donate to the AIWC Forever Home Campaign
  7. Volunteer!
  8. Give from our wish list
  9. Leave a legacy or planned gift. Contact us for more information
  10. Attend an AIWC event
  11. Bring home your own copy of AIWC’s first children’s book: Scared Skunk

By Nina Grossman, AWIC Volunteer

Reducing Wildlife Yard Hazards

Spring has finally arrived, and with spring comes migratory song birds and a new generation of wildlife. Spring is one of the busiest times for AIWC. We see an increase in patient numbers as the breeding season begins due to things such as human-wildlife conflict, incidents with domesticated house pets, and other man-made hazards.

There are a number of things you can do to make your yard more wildlife friendly. This blog outlines different hazards and how to make them less dangerous to the wildlife visiting your yard.

One of the top hazards for songbirds are windows, killing about one billion birds annually (EALT 2017, Cornell University 2016). Windows often appear as a reflection of the sky or surrounding trees, and when there isn’t a reflection birds may see right through the window and collide into it as a result (EALT 2017). There are a few things that you can do to help prevent window strikes:

  • Place bird baths and bird feeders within 1 m or further than 10 m from a window (EALT 2017, Cornell University 2009). Window strikes are more likely to be fatal if the bird is flying at top speed.
  • Use stickers designed to help birds see the window. Some window decals reflect UV light, which is visible to birds but not people (EALT 2017). There are also stickers designed to allow people to see out from the inside, but prevent reflections on the outside (Cornell University 2009).
  • See this website for more information on window strikes      http://www.flap.org/residential_new.php

Another hazard for songbirds are cats. Cats are continually one of the leading causes for songbird deaths annually and more than 100 million deaths caused by cats are estimated in Canada each year (EALT 2017).

  • The simplest fix for this is to keep your cat inside, where they will also be the safest.
  • If your feline friend goes stir crazy, compromise by creating an outdoor cat-condo, putting them on a harness, or supervising their outdoor time.

Some pesticides are toxic and can harm wildlife (Whitford et al. date unknown). It can pose a hazard to some species through biomagnification (the increase of a toxin occurring in an organism’s tissue higher up in the food chain) and there are several ways to garden that can either reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides. The Canadian Wildlife Federation has 5 tips on their website (http://cwf-fcf.org/en/resources/DIY/at-home/five-alternatives-to-pesticides.html) to help be more eco-friendly in your yard:

Use coffee grounds as a natural fertilizer.

  • Use vinegar to stave away slugs.
  • Use boiling water to get rid of pesky weeds
  • Aerate!
  • Plant a variety of different species in your garden to attract different pollinators.

Window wells can pose as a trap for small, non-aerial wildlife and they can succumb to starvation if they can’t get out of the window well (EALT 2017).

  • Installing a window well cover over the window can decrease the chances of an animal falling in the well.

Water barrels are a great natural and resource-friendly way to collect rain water to use on your yard and in your garden, but if they aren’t set up properly they can become a trap for some animals (EALT 2017).

  • By covering your water barrel with a screen, you will protect against small animals from becoming trapped and drowning.
  • By using the rain water in your rain barrel more frequently, you reduce the risk of wildlife drowning and you also reduce the likelihood that mosquitos will use the water as their nesting ground.

As always, AIWC is ready to help with any orphaned and injured wildlife you come across. By making your yard wildlife friendly, you become a steward for wildlife and reduce the chance of human-wildlife conflict!

 By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer

References:

Cornell University. 2016. If You Have a Wildlife Friendly Yard, Watch Out For Window Collisions. Available at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/wildlife-friendly-yards-welcome-birds-but-can-increase-window-collisions/

Cornell University. 2009. Why Birds Hit Windows – And How You Can Help Prevent It. Available at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/why-birds-hit-windows-and-how-you-can-help-prevent-it/

EALT (Edmonton & Area Land Trust). 2017. Hazardous Habitats. Available at: https://www.ealt.ca/hazardous-habitats

CWF (Canadian Wildlife Federation). 2008. Five Alternatives to Pesticides. Available at: http://cwf-fcf.org/en/resources/DIY/at-home/five-alternatives-to-pesticides.html

Whitford, F., Miller, B., Bennet, R., Jones, M., and L. Bledsoe. Date Unknown. Pesticides and Wildlife: An Introduction to Testing, Registration, and Risk Management. Edited by Blessing, A., and D. Doyle. Purdue Pesticide Programs, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

Wildfires and Wildlife

Photo credit: Winnipeg Free Press

Last year in Alberta, on May 1st, 2016, the largest ever wildfire evacuation took place with thousands of residents from Fort McMurray fleeing south along highway 63 towards Edmonton and Calgary. Many people had no choice but to abandon everything, as the flames quickly grew out of control. Many more people wondered if they too would have to evacuate as the fire eventually crossed the border into Saskatchewan. But, luckily for them the fire subsided and after two long months, on July 5th, 2016 the flames were finally declared under control.

The fire destroyed not only people’s houses, but also the homes of all the wildlife that used to live in the area. For the animals that were lucky enough to survive the fire, thick clouds of smoke forced them to abandon their habitat. It will take many years for the roughly 500,000 burned hectares to be fully populated again. This is because in order for animals to return, all the vegetation that was destroyed has to regrow through a process known as secondary succession.

In the early stages of succession during the next couple of years, many ungulate species such as moose will benefit from the plethora of low lying shrubs and grasses from which they can graze upon. Bears too will benefit from the increased abundance of berries.

During this time the plants are competing to see who can grow the fastest and get the closest to the sun. By hoarding the sunlight to itself, the conifer species—who can first grow tall enough to provide a canopy—will be the one that will dominate the forest. This takes quite some time with ten percent canopy coverage from five-meter-tall trees taking anywhere from five to ten years to grow. The boreal plains ecozone has particularly rich soil though, so this process could occur much faster.

Maintaining the fire killed trees (snags) is an important way we can help speed up the recovery of the forest. The reason being, that woodpeckers create cavities for nesting in snags, that are used by a variety of other birds and small mammals who can then go on to disperse and germinate seeds. Eventually, these seeds will create the trees, branches and foliage that the over four hundred species of birds in Alberta rely upon for creating nests and roosting. Snags with cavities only stay erect for a couple of years however, and it is important that we maintain them for as long as possible.

We also need to remain patient and to simply allow mother nature to take her course. After a period of twenty years or so, we will again be able to see the forest for the trees. We can also take comfort in the fact that all the dried up organic matter on the forest floor will be gone, and in its place will be a moist layer of vegetation that will likely prevent another fire from occurring. Until then you can be happy for all the bears, ungulates and woodpeckers that are likely to benefit in the short term.

For more information on Alberta’s wildlife, book an education program with our knowledgeable staff and volunteers. To support AIWC’s ongoing care of wildlife in Alberta consider adopting an animal, donating items from our wish list, purchasing your copy of Scared Skunk or volunteering.

By Michael Orr, AIWC Volunteer

References:

Bartels, Samuel, Han Chen and Michael Wulder. “Trends in post-disturbance recovery rates of Canada’s forest following wildfire and harvest.” Forest Ecology and Management 361 (2016): 194-207. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112715006386 (accessed March 16, 2017).

Farris, Kerry and Steve Zack. “Woodpecker-snag interactions: an overview of current knowledge in ponderosa pine systems.” Proceedings of the symposium on ponderosa pine: issues, trends, and management. General Technical Report PSW-GTR-198. USDA Forest Service. Albany, California, USA. https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr198/psw_gtr198_m.pdf (accessed March 16, 2017)

 

Greater Sage Grouse

Alberta is home to a number of grouse species including the blue grouse, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse, and the greater sage grouse. The greater sage grouse is one of the most impressive and most threatened varieties.

As one of the largest grouse species and with males sporting a spiked fanning tail, the greater sage grouse is especially striking. During mating season these birds return to their ancestral “lek” where males perform elaborate dances in which their broad white chests are further accentuated by inflated yellow air sacs. Their odd calls and the timing of their displays at dawn as the sun rises over the expansive prairie sky makes this chicken-like bird all the more impressive.

Unfortunately, as a native to the grasslands of North America, the greater sage grouse is now identified as a species at risk in Alberta. Like plains grizzly bears, the greater sage grouse has been heavily impacted by human activity.  As a result of habitat loss, the greater sage grouse is now only seen in a small southeast corner of southern Alberta although measures are in place to help restore the greater sage grouse population and the prairie grasslands.

Should you find an injured or orphaned greater sage grouse, or any other wildlife, contact AIWC for assistance. If you would like to support AIWC’s work consider adopting an animal, volunteering at the centre, or donating to one of our fundraisers.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

Sources: Government of Alberta, http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/birds/grouse-related-birds/greater-sage-grouse.aspx
Government of Canada, http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=305
Photo Credit: C. Olson at the Alberta Wilderness Society.

Small but Sharp: The Northern Saw-Whet Owl

 

Right now, AIWC is caring for a tiny, feathered critter with bright, yellow eyes.

The Northern Saw-whet owl is known for their small size, over sized head and cat-like face. But what they lack in size, they make up for in attitude!

Northern Saw-whet owls are a mottled brown colour with white-coloured facial disks and white spotted heads.

These little owls can be found in coniferous and deciduous forests across North America. They are nocturnal forest birds, roosting in dense vegetation during the daytime, often near trunks of evergreen trees.

Unless your looking, you aren’t likely to see one of these little owls since they roost in nests just above eye-level.

They are fierce hunters, stalking and killing mice and small mammals, specifically deer mice, shrews and voles mainly at dusk. They use what’s called the “sit and wait” tactic, dropping down onto prey from low hunting perches. When there’s no shortage of prey, a Saw-whet owl can kill as many as six mice in succession. They then store the kill in a safe place, thawing them out to eat in the winter. Resourceful!

These little mammals have a shrill, penetrating territorial call that sounds sort of like a repetitive note being played on a flute.

Along with a flute-like call, these owls make a “skiew” call when alarmed that sounds like the whetting of a saw, which is exactly how they got their name!

And they really are vocal little owls! During breeding season —between March and May—they use a monotonous, whistled “hoop” as a courtship call. And this call can last for several hours without a break!

Because they like to move around, Saw-whet owls aren’t likely to form permanent bonds, but they are great parents!

After a female has been attracted to a male’s call, the male will fly above the female or take her to his nest site. The male will land next to the female and do a funny head bobbing, shuffling dance, sometimes even offering her a dead mouse! Pretty sweet, right?

Northern Saw-whet owls like to nest in old woodpecker cavities. Females lay about three to seven eggs and do all the incubation for the 21 to 28 day period.

Parents continue to care for young for several weeks after they’ve left the nest, and the young-lings fledge at four to five weeks.

Northern Saw-whet owls can live up to ten years!

These small, beautiful owls are just another example of the diverse and precious wildlife thriving right here in our province: just another reason to protect and care for wild animals.

The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will…” –Theodore Roosevelt

 By Nina Grossman, AIWC Volunteer

 Sources:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Saw-whet_Owl/id

http://www.owlpages.com/owls/species.php?s=3030

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowy Owl Population Booms

About two or three years ago, I spotted the largest number of snowy owls I had ever seen in southern Alberta. I haven’t seen as many this winter season, and began to wonder if there was a reason for this. Maybe I have been spending less time out of the city this winter, I’m getting rusty at spotting them or maybe there is some other driving force that influences the snowy owl population size.

As an environmental scientist, I am familiar with the snowshoe hare-lynx population cycle so I did a little research to see if there was a similar population cycle with the snowy owl and one of their prey species.

The way the snowshoe hare-lynx population cycle works is like this:

  •  The hare population size increases when the population size of their predator—the lynx—is low.
  • As the hare population continues to increase due to predation by lynx being low, the lynx population begins to increase due to the abundance of preferred food, the snowshoe hare.
  • The snowshoe hare population eventually declines due to heavy predation brought on by the booming lynx population.
  • The lynx population follows the declining snowshoe hare trend shortly after with their own decline due to less available food.

The cycle continues like this, with booms and busts for each species (Northwest Territories Environment and Natural Resources). Of course, there are more factors that can come into play, but that is a simplified version.

With the snowy owl, there has been speculation and several recent studies on the relation between the snowy owl and lemming populations (Fears 2014; Smith 2014). Lemmings are small rodents that are related to voles and inhabit northern Canada. They reproduce quickly and reach peak population sizes every three to five years (Canadian Encyclopedia 2017).

There are two popular theories that explain lemming population cycles (Smith 2014):

  • Predators, such as the snowy owl drive lemming population cycles.
  • Lemmings drive their own population declines through over-population and overgrazing, which can lead to large scale die-offs.

In the summer of 2013, there was an abundance of lemmings in northern Canada. This resulted in high reproductive success rates for snowy owls and an abundance of snowy owl fledglings successfully leaving their nests. Because there were so many new owls the following winter season during their migration south, many of the young owls distributed themselves further south and closer together than normal (Fears 2014; Smith 2014). This is what lead to me seeing more snowy owls than ever before!

Lemming population booms have virtually stopped in Greenland and the Scandinavian Arctic (Fears 2014). Global warming is causing decreases in snow cover and changes in snow texture (IPCC 2014), which is believed to be causing the change in lemming population booms. Arctic Canada has also seen a trend of decreasing snow cover and increases in permafrost and surface temperatures (IPCC 2014). As trends continue in this direction, they will not favor the lemming and I speculate that we can expect to see population booms of the snowy owl become fewer and farther between.

AIWC usually receives a few snowy owls each year. Head over to our Adopt an Animal page (https://www.aiwc.ca/support-us/adopt-an-animal/) or call us at 403-946-2361 to help support a large raptor today!

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer

Sources:

Canadian Encyclopedia. 2017. Lemming. Available at: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/lemming/

Fears, Darryl. 2014. Lemmings fuel biggest snowy-owl migration in 50 years. Guardian Weekly. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/feb/24/snowy-owl-lemming-population-us-canada

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full_wcover.pdf

Northwest Territories Environment and Natural Resources. Date unknown. Lynx-Snowshoe Hare Cycle. Available at: http://www.enr.gov.nt.ca/node/3052

Smith, Joe. 2014. The Amazing Lemming: The Rodent Behind the Snowy Owl Invasion? Cool Green Science: by Smarter Nature. Available at: http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/01/21/the-amazing-lemming-the-rodent-behind-the-snowy-owl-invasion/

 

Grizzly Bears

Photo credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

Imagine the tallest human being in history, Robert Pershing Wadlow who was 2.47 meters tall. Now imagine a grizzly bear standing on his hind legs. Who do you think is taller? You may be surprised to find out that these behemoth bears can be over three meters tall when standing. Now how much would you suppose a 3-meter-tall grizzly weighs? What if I said over 325 kilograms! Does that sound crazy? Also, do not go thinking that you can outrun them either, since grizzlies can reach speeds of up to fifty-five kilometers per hour, and are excellent swimmers too!

Roughly, 50,000 years ago these magnificent beasts traversed the Bering land bridge making the journey from Eurasia to North America. Due to their travel itch, these bears have become the most widespread species in the entire world; however, we did not know this for some period. In fact, in the 19th century people thought there were 86 different species of grizzly! It was not until 1953 that we discovered that despite being geographically isolated and having different coat colours and sizes, that these were all in fact one species known as the brown bear, Ursus arctos. One particular subspecies the grizzly, Ursus arctos horribilis, is a little bit more aggressive then the rest. You can tell grizzlies apart from the tamer black bear – which is sometimes brown especially in open, sunny areas – by the grizzly’s dished face, and by their large muscular shoulder hump that is used for digging dens. Grizzly bear tracks are also different from that of black bears due to their longer claws.

Grizzlies may be more aggressive compared with other brown bear subspecies due to their history on the prairies. With a lack of shelter, grizzlies became accustomed to standing their ground, and naturally had to defend themselves instead of hiding.

The population in Canada has dwindled down to 20,000, being mostly located in British Columbia, but also throughout the Alberta Rockies, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Historically, in Alberta, grizzly population levels were at 6,000-9,000 bears. In 2002, their numbers dropped to around 1,000, and in 2006 there was a hunting ban, but it was not until their population fell to 691 in 2010 that they became listed as a threatened species in Alberta. Presently in Alberta, you will find them in the Banff and Jasper National parks, as well as on the foothills along the mountains, and in the northwest boreal forest.

The biggest hurdle towards achieving a sustainable grizzly population is habitat fragmentation. When grizzly populations become isolated and fragmented they become susceptible to local extinction due to inbreeding, disease, fire, and human induced mortality. Many of these sub populations of grizzly are going extinct and one of the main causes of fragmentation are roads. Some reasons roads cause bear deaths are because of vehicle collisions and poaching. Also, female grizzlies are reluctant to cross roads, which reduces their ability to breed and to gather resources for winter. Typical female ranges are 150 – 3,000 km2 and so a reduced range may prevent her from gathering enough fat before winter. If she does manage to survive, less weight means that fewer cubs will be born.

So you may be asking yourself now, “What can I do to protect this iconic species?” Well for starters, always make sure to properly dispose of your trash and waste on campgrounds. Make sure to scare off grizzlies if you see one by making lots of noise. Try to avoid encounters as much as possible, by avoiding smaller trails, industrial access roads, and areas with lots of berries in the fall. Make sure you report bear sightings to your local authority to prevent conflicts with humans and watch out for bears on the road!

For more information on Alberta’s wildlife, book an education program with our knowledgeable staff and volunteers. To support AIWC’s ongoing care of wildlife in Alberta, consider adopting an animal, donating to items from our wish list, purchasing your copy of Scared Skunk or volunteering at the center.

By Michael Orr, AIWC volunteer

References:

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). 2016. Grizzly Bear. Available at: http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/mammals/bears/grizzly-bear.aspx

Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). 2016. Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan. Available at: http://aep.alberta.ca/files/GrizzlyBearRecoveryPlanDraft-Jun01-2016.pdf

Alberta Wilderness Association. The grizzly bear is one of the most glamorous and prestigious wildlife species in Alberta. Available at: https://albertawilderness.ca/issues/wildlife/grizzly-bear/

British Columbia Ministry of Environment. 2002. Grizzly Bears In British Columbia. Available at: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/grzzlybear.pdf

Bear With Us. 2017. The Eight (8) Bear Species of the World. Available at: http://bearwithus.org/8-bears-of-the-world/

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 2016. Alberta bear attacks have some on high alert. Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-bear-attack-high-alert-1.3690462

David Suzuki Foundation. Help Protect Canada’s Shrinking Grizzly Bear Population. Available at: http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/wildlife-habitat/projects/grizzly-bears/learnmore/

Parks Canada. 2014. Bears In The Mountain National Parks Grizzly Bears. Available at: http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/mtn/ours-bears/generaux-basics/grizzli-grizzly.aspx

Keystone Species 

Similar to a keystone which provides the stability to an archway, a keystone species helps provide stability to the surrounding ecosystem. Most animals play a vital role in the well-being of their local environments and the other species that inhabit them, but some deliver more critical services that are essential to maintaining balance. Some animals build new nests or burrows year after year while other animals borrow these discarded homes and would be without shelter if this keystone species was lost.

Pollinators like bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds help sustain the next generation of plants by cross-fertilizing which produces fruits, seeds and vegetables for other animals to eat. Predators like wasps, wolves and cougars help prevent herbivores like beetles, rabbits and deer from over-eating those plants so that they can be pollinated again in future seasons.

Keystone species may also sustain the soil and water quality. Wolves may prey on deer which prevents the deer from eating too many saplings in a given area. This allows shoots to develop into large trees, whose root systems prevent erosion and support river banks. The rivers can then maintain adequate depths, turbidity, nutrient levels and temperatures to support fish and other aquatic plants and animals.

Alberta is home to a number of keystone species. These include beavers whose dams create ecosystems for many other animals like moose and ducks, Richardson’s ground squirrels whose underground tunneling aerates the soil to support native grasses while also providing shelter to other animals and grey wolves who help to maintain a healthy population of ungulates. Without these important species, ecosystems may become imbalanced which in turn could lead to an increase in the number of displaced wildlife that end up in conflict with humans and who ultimately find their way into AIWC’s care.

For more information on Alberta’s wildlife, book an education program with our knowledgeable staff and volunteers. To support AIWC’s ongoing care of keystone species and other wildlife in Alberta, consider adopting an animal, donating to items from our wish list, purchasing your copy of Scared Skunk or volunteering at the centre.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

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