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Charming Boreal Micro-hooters

Once again, undetected by most eyes, the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owls sweep down in waves from the northern forests where they make their homes. This invasion is one of cuteness and unbridled savagery. If you are a human and fortunate enough to bask in the presence of eastern North America's smallest owl, they are impossibly cute. Admirers, usually women, who fawn over them invariably use the C-word.

But if you are, say, a White-footed Mouse, cute would be the last adjective on your mind if one of these things came at you. How animals interpret things is all in their perspective and position in life.

Anyway, I have blogged several times in past years about forays down to Chillicothe, Ohio each fall and early winter to witness the efforts of some folks who run a saw-whet banding operation as part of Project Owlnet. Kelly Sieg, Bob Placier, and Bill Bosstic have been nabbing the micro-hooters since 2003 and have caught well over 300 owls to date. I was down there last Friday night with a bunch of owl enthusiasts and we had the good fortune of netting an owl.

Kelly Sieg gets a laugh out of her subject. One never tires of seeing these birds. And, yes, they are cute. And seemingly fearless. These little owls have become quite the ambassadors for nature. I believe they told me that something on the order of 400 people visited this banding station last year! The owls have become media darlings, too, with numerous newspaper articles and other publicity. Ohio Magazine did a wonderful story on them recently; that article is right here.

Northern Saw-whet Owls are "earless" owls in the sense that they have no ear tufts, as do Eastern Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls. But the tufts on those species are not really ears - they are just tufts of feathers that probably serve in displays and in adding to the bird's camouflage. In the photo above, we see the true ear of an owl. They are massive cavernous pits located on either side of the head, and covered by feathers. If your ears and eyes took up the mass of your head in proportion to a saw-whet, you would probably be making your money with the carnival crowd as part of a sideshow act.

Each ear is slightly offset from the other, allowing for a slight difference in arrival time of a sound. Even though this difference might only be measured in thousandth's of a second, the owl's brain processes the difference and this allows the bird to effectively triangulate on the source even in complete darkness.

The banders collect all kinds of data on the birds: weight, sex, various measurements, fat deposition, and of course a nice silver band with diagnostic numbers is placed on a leg. In this photo, our owl is placed under blacklight, which causes certain feathers to glow pink. And we go "like wow, man, really cosmic, like you know, for sure" and look for the Grateful Dead posters on the wall.

But even better than '60's retro tripping is the fact that all this pinkness aglow tells us the age of the bird. Pigments in the feathers known as porphyrins cause this pink shine, and the younger the feather the brighter the aura.

In the short video above, we see the weighing process. While perhaps somewhat undignified, it does the owl no harm and they never seem very mad at us afterwards. I failed to turn the vidcam off right away after I finished narrating, and you can hear some of the typical sugary comments and reactions that these Lilliputian beasts provoke among the admiring throng of observers.

There are always photo ops, and the best part of all this is seeing the reactions of people who have never seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl, let along held one. None of this attention appears to faze the birds in the slightest. Occasionally one will clack its bill a few times, but that's about it. Here, we can see the effect of gentle head rubs - the little owl seems to enter a blissful trance.

After all the processing is done, the owl is placed in complete darkness so its eyes reacclimate to the night, then it is taken outside and released. As further evidence of their seeming fearlessness, they are sometimes placed on someone's arm as a launch pad. This one was, and it sat there for a few minutes before deciding to wing back into the dark woods and its mysterious life. But for a while, the tiny owl enriched the lives of some people who will probably carry memories of it far longer than it will remember us.

Thanks as always to Kelly, Bob, and Bill for graciously hosting us, and for all of the fine work that they do.


nina said…
Very very interesting post.
And, especially to me, who has been told I might expect to find them in my woods, here in Ohio, also.
What a treat that would be!

Are the banding operations you visited open to the public? (I know only licensed banders can do this, but I think it would be thrilling to watch)
KatDoc said…
Charming is right! I have seen this little critters on display by a raptor rehab group and once in the wild, but like Nina, I think it would be cool to watch the banding process.

Isn't it a violation of an owl's dignity to be stuck head-first and upside-down into a jar?


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