Scores of tiny little owls are passing you by tonight. I bet everyone who reads this has passed within a half-mile of a Northern Saw-whet Owl within the last few weeks, if not closer. Yet few of our smallest eastern owl are detected, so adept are they at hiding during daylight hours.
Aaron Boone, coordinator of the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, was along last night. Here Aaron processes an owl. This involves taking a number of measurements, gauging feather molt, body fat, coloration, and of course carefully placing a band on the owl's leg. The funnel to Aaron's left is part of the scale used to weigh birds. Most of these Northern Saw-whets tip in at a whopping 92 grams or so. The return rates of saw-whets are far higher than most groups of banded birds. A dozen or so of the owls caught in Chillicothe have been recaptured elsewhere, or they've caught other banded owls. A few nights before this, they captured an owl that had been banded at Whitefish Point, Michigan.
An interesting way of aging birds is to hold them under a black light. This causes certain feathers to glow pink, and with experience banders can use the reflected colors to see how old the individual is. It also creates a groovy atmosphere in the banding station.
This is what a Northern Saw-whet Owl's ear looks like. They are sizeable apertures, and enable incredible powers of hearing. In many owl species, the ears are offset; they do not occur directly opposite of each other. This better allows the owl to triangulate on an object in very dark conditions, and pinpoint its location. If you are a mouse, this means big trouble. You'll probably never know what hit you.
Keep your eyes peeled when around conifers, grapevine tangles, or dense shrubbery. We know that huge numbers of owls are moving through, but they are very easy to miss. But, you just might get lucky and spot one.