Owl-lovers’ paradise

🕔Dec 15, 2005

For more than 40 years, the heart of one soft-spoken Bulkley Valley resident has been held hostage—by a winged creature that has invoked reverence, fascination, and fear for at least 30,000 more.

“I’ve got more questions than when I started—thousands of questions,” says Rolf Krahe. “And I’ll do this until my last breath.”

He’s speaking about the most enduring project of his 73 years, and a passion akin to a mission: saving owls from extinction.

Krahe does this from his mobile home on 160 mostly forested acres outside of Smithers, where he and his wife Maria, 70, care for, research and breed the world’s rarest owls.

About 75 owls currently call the Krahe aviaries home. A diverse bunch, they hail from three continents and 17 species, range in age from four months to 27 years old, and measure 14 centimetres to 68 centimetres high.

After sundown, the Krahe property sounds like no other: these nocturnal creatures bring the dark to life with an otherworldly, international chorus. Their owlish conversations can be heard by their kin in the wild for several kilometres around.

“I used to fall asleep at night listening to the sound of the spectacled owl,” says Krahe, recalling how it affected him during that period in-between consciousness and deep sleep. “Their sounds—deep, hollow like a drum beat—always made me think of native tribes in South America.”

Owls have always claimed a piece of human consciousness. In Chauvet, France, they’re found in cave drawings thought to be 30,000 years old. The owl was a staple in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the sacred bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill. Owls were even given starring roles in a constellation called Noctua, and M97, a.k.a. the Owl Nebula in our own galaxy.

But Krahe’s relationship with owls is unique: its reverberations are felt around the world and its seed actually did come from South America—back in 1968.

That’s when Krahe, in his native Germany, was visited by a friend who’d received a gift from an aboriginal tribe in Paraguay: a tiny pair of owlets. Unsure of what to do with them but reluctant to return a gift, the friend hoped Krahe—a confirmed lover of songbirds, who knew relatively little about owls—might come to his aid.

Soon after Krahe was adopted by the owlets, ornithologists determined they were striped owls, about which very little was known. The maturing owls determined they were male and female, by reproducing under Krahe’s care. And as Dolores and Pedro, as they were called, opened a door in Krahe’s mind as well as in his heart, he became determined to uncover more owl secrets.

Krahe’s curiosity stemmed first from a passion for all things that creep, crawl and fly, and a sense—which he suspects some people are born with—of responsibility for caring for non-human life.

“I love all animals,” says Krahe. “But one person can’t be a guardian of them all. Early on, it became clear that I’d have to specialize.”

Krahe’s careful research on the striped owls won him a gold medal from one of Europe’s most prestigious nature journals. Since then, and after his immigration to Canada 25 years ago, Krahe has cared for hundreds of owls.

Dolores and Pedro were among the few that were given names, handled more than absolutely necessary, or displayed for visitors. The point, explains Krahe, is to not turn owls into pets. Young birds easily “imprint,” substituting humans for their own kind. When this happens, owls become unable to survive on their own, reject potential mates and have even become known to attack their own young.

Even so, Krahe has enjoyed incredible connections with owls, including a 26-year relationship with a couple of owl siblings, and an owl who rendered him speechless—by settling into his hand and, quite suddenly, laying an egg.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that owl conservation emerged for Krahe as a pressing concern, along with the awareness that numerous owl species are threatened by rapid liquidation of the world’s forests, climate change, and natural catastrophe. This has only fuelled his desire to learn more about these denizens of the night.

“You can’t protect owls without knowing what you’re protecting,” he explains.

In 1994, Krahe founded a charitable organization, the Society for Conservation and Research of Owls (SCRO), where he monitors populations, oversees a careful breeding program, and rehabilitates injured owls. He painstakingly prepares owls for re-release back into their native habitats, which often requires live shipping. Krahe works in partnership with owl lovers and conservation organizations around the world, and today is recognized as one of the world’s most knowledgeable owl experts.

Through SCRO, Krahe successfully forges international, government-sanctioned collaborations among conservationists, prioritizing the world’s most vulnerable species. His breeding program continues to astonish ornithologists who predicted it couldn’t be done: under SCRO’s watch, at least four owl species bred for the first time in human care in North America, and at least one more (the striped owl) for the first time under human care anywhere.

All along, Krahe has been heartened by evidence that extremely vulnerable owl species can be rescued from the brink. For example, in Eifel, Germany, the eagle owl had dwindled to a couple of breeding pairs in the 1950s. Thanks to a careful breeding program, about 100 pairs exist today.

Krahe believes owls are a good bet, as many owl species have shown themselves capable, with a bit of human help, of readapting to a vastly changed habitat. He cites one 25-year study which discovered the eastern screech owl does better in suburbia than in its traditional habitat.

Krahe believes it’s important that conservation efforts prioritize the most vulnerable species. It’s why he generally focuses on lesser known tropical owls, which comprise 85 per cent of all owl species, and species on densely populated islands, which are considered 40 times more vulnerable to extinction than their continental counterparts.

This is why he has established a government-sanctioned owl breeding centre in the densely populated Dominican Republic, to strengthen the populations of four owls not found anywhere else. It’s just started to release the first ashy-faced barn owls ever bred under human care.

It’s also why he’s targeting the northern saw-whet owls in Haida Gwaii that are increasingly hard-pressed to find the old growth trees which provide their nesting cavities. They’ve recently been blue-listed as “vulnerable” by the B.C. government. Inspired by a similar, highly successful project in Finland, this project aims to entice the owls to breed in human-made nest boxes strategically placed in standing dead trees.

Krahe’s relationship with owls is extraordinary, but remains grounded in experience of what they are. The same cannot be said of most humans. Unsettled by owl behaviour, people have historically ascribed them with all sorts of motives—not all of them charitable.

Owls’ unabashed golden gaze, coupled with a capacity to rotate their heads about 270 degrees and to navigate in darkness, by echolocation, rightly makes people wonder what owls can see that we can’t.

Their dining habits make people uneasy. These carnivores sight their prey—hapless furry creatures up to three times the birds’ own weight—from great heights in the dark. They swoop down soundlessly on wings spanning up to five feet, to cinch sharp talons around soft, yielding bellies.

Owls’ taste for creepy crawlers hasn’t helped. Lights burning late in the open windows of sickrooms attract swarms of juicy insects—and hungry owls. Krahe believes this is why they became scapegoats as harbingers of death.

Owl vocalizations can be, well, downright spooky. In Krahe’s tiny office, lined like a nest with owl-related books, news clippings and photos, he presses “play” on a recording of the barred owl. The room swells with eerie cries which sound half-human, like mocking, even lunatic laughter.

“You can imagine how, in the past, people hearing this would have thought that these sounds could be made by the devil,” he says.

Of course, owl reputations aren’t all negative. Owls’ stately quiet and observant demeanour during daylight hours—perhaps calling forth images of elders—has probably contributed to their reputation for wisdom.

Krahe considers the question of whether owls’ high cultural profile—both positive and negative—has helped, or hurt, conservation efforts.

“Both,” he concludes. He points out that well into the 19th century, Europeans and early American settlers were still nailing them to barn doors to ward off evil. Even today in Indonesia, killing an owl is considered a good deed. On the other hand, species such as the spotted owl have spawned a virtual academic industry. Krahe believes owls’ profile clearly gives them a conservation edge over, say, the threatened common house rat.

As a person who interacts more with the animal world than do most humans, Krahe is reluctant to ascribe human characteristics to owls, much less comment on their supposed wisdom.

But he can’t help but observe: “Any bird that survives for thousands of years can’t be stupid.”

No doubt Dolores and Pedro, those tiny Paraguayan ambassadors for the owl kingdom, ought to be offered some intelligence credits for finding their way through the stormy 20th century, to Rolf Krahe.

The Society for Conservation and Research of Owls is a charitable organization recognized by the B.C. government. Although it has enjoyed grants from the Baillie Foundation, Vancouver Foundation and the government of Canada, it’s supported mostly by volunteers and memberships. There are many ways to support SCRO’s work: volunteer, adopt an owl, buy a nest box or SCRO merchandise, or make a tax-deductible donation. Find out more at www.scro.org

Your owl-lovers’ paradise
Twelve of Canada’s 15 owl species spend at least part of the year in the Bulkley Valley, making it comparable in species diversity to continental Europe, which has 13 species. Bulkley Valley owl species include:
• western screech owl
• snowy owl
• saw-whet owl
• boreal owl
• pygmy owl
• long-eared owl
• short-eared owl
• hawk owl
• great horned owl
• great grey owl
• barred owl
• barn owl

© 2005 Larissa Ardis