Getting to know Bernard Forsythe
His nickname is well earned. For 40 years, Bernard Forsythe, “The Owl Man of Kings County” has observed and studied barred owls, helping them survive changing forest conditions near his home in the Annapolis Valley. But Bernard’s relationship to nature reaches so far beyond owls, the Canadian Wildlife Federation named him winner of the Stan Hodgkiss Outdoorsperson of the Year award in 2013. A self-taught naturalist, he has created an enormous database of information and earned the respect of the scientific community. Saltscapes spoke with Bernard Forsythe about growing up on a farm, the secrets in his freezer and falling out of trees.
Q What volunteer work earned you the award?
A Starting in 1975, I recorded every bird nest I found for the Maritime Nest Registry. In 40 years, I’ve recorded just under 4,000 bird nests, representing 123 species that nest in my area of Kings and Hants County.
Q How did you get interested in birds?
A I grew up on a farm. When I could get away, I was always heading for the fields, orchards or nearby woods to see what I could find.
Q You didn’t want to be a farmer?
A I had the opportunity, but I had to farm every single day—the hens don’t stop laying on the weekends. I was a rural mail deliverer. In 40 years I never took a vacation. I liked being on the route, watching the seasons go by.
Q Why the particular interest in owls?
A They’re fascinating birds [with] their own personalities. I can tell each year whether it’s the same owls coming to my nest boxes. It’s like meeting old friends. I have a pair in my own back yard that I feed in the winter.
Q What do you feed them?
A I have friends that trap mice and donate them. I confiscated a corner of the deep freeze.
Q How do you feed a mouse to an owl?
A I climb a ladder and put the mouse on a tray. [The owls] are waiting for me in a nearby tree. When I put the mouse on the tray, they swoop in and grab it. You might say they’re semi-tame. Or they’ve tamed me.
Q Why do barred owls need nest boxes?
A They’re a cavity nester. Their normal habitat is old growth woods; the vast majority of old growth is gone. A lot of our species are heading downhill. It’s really a crime what’s going on with the forests of the Maritimes.
Q When are you happiest?
A When I can get out and see what’s going on around me. I’ve been known to walk a dozen kilometres, easily. I don’t walk that far now—five or six kilometres. I’ve fallen out of trees. If you’re a tree climber, you’ve got to expect you’re gonna fall sooner or later.
Q Why do you climb trees?
A These nest boxes are 35 feet up. They take quite a bit of maintenance. I still get a thrill if I climb a tree and an owl flies out of one of my boxes.
Q Sounds like that inquisitive boy is still inside you.
A This whole thing has kept me quite young.