Winter Fair is for the birds
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Agile birds of prey helped kick off the 2023 Royal Manitoba Winter Fair on Monday morning, taking over the Keystone Centre’s amphitheatre alongside their handlers from the Canadian Raptor Conservancy.
Conservancy director James Cowan and his wife Shauna gave visitors the chance to watch certain species of these carnivorous birds take flight, including an American kestrel, a great horned owl and a red-tailed hawk.
The Cowans also introduced the crowd to Bruce the bald eagle, although his flying demonstration was saved for a much larger venue later in the day.
While the spectacle of these avian specimens gracefully gliding in an enclosed space elicited “oohs” and “awws” from the audience, Cowan hopes they walk away from the demonstration with a greater appreciation for the animals’ broader utility to agricultural producers.
Cowan said birds like the American Kestrel, for example, are a reliable method of pest control for Manitoba farmers.
Despite its status as the smallest falcon in North America, a single kestrel has been known to catch and kill up to two mice a day, Cowan said, which averages out to more than 700 rodents over the course of a year.
“Kestrels even feed off of a lot of grasshoppers in the summer, too,” he told the Sun after Monday’s morning show.
“You wouldn’t think that a little falcon like that could do much, but they’re eating thousands of grasshoppers. It really helps out.”
Cowan also said Manitoba farmers can make simple changes to their property to maximize the pest-killing potential of these birds, like installing a man-made platform near waterways or building as nest box in a telephone pole or tree.
“If it’s facing the right direction and the hole is the right size … you have a chance at getting this magnificent bird in your backyard right here in Manitoba,” he said.
Another major aspect of Cowan’s job is raising awareness for bird conservation, especially with the population of southwestern species like the burrowing owl being in a precarious state.
One group that has been trying to reintroduce these migratory birds back into the province is the Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program, which is also setting up an information booth at this year’s Winter Fair.
Program director Alex Froese told the Sun she’s hoping to use this space to highlight the role beef producers can play in maintaining their grassland habitats.
“There’s a lot of other grassland bird species that depend on grazed lands,” Froese said.
“So it’s really important for a lot of different species to have grazers on the land, and cattle are the grazers of the present and the future.”
Cowan said the general public’s attitude toward animal conservation has dramatically shifted in the last 30 years he has been active in this field, which gives him tremendous hope for the future.
“When we first started out, one of the first things we heard was ‘that’s a really cool bird. Can I have that mounted for my wall?’” he said.
“And I would say in the last 10 years nobody has ever asked me that question. It’s more like ‘how can we help these guys out?’”
Manitoba Burrowing Owl Recovery Program members will be setting up a booth at the Keystone Centre’s Flynn Arena between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. today and tomorrow.
The Canadian Raptor Conservancy will be taking part in multiple events throughout the rest of the week.
For a full rundown of all Royal Manitoba Winter Fair events for the week, visit provincialexhibition.com/royal-manitoba-winter-fair/.
» Twitter: @KyleDarbyson