Thursday, November 5, 2009

Micro-hooters return!

A silent nocturnal army of feathered killers is once again drifting into our woodlands. Albeit, impossibly cute little killers that invariably inspire all sorts of overly anthropomorphic comments. Words like "cute", "adorable", and "charming" are bound to be heard anytime people are fortunate enough to get up close and personal with a Northern Saw-whet Owl.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. You'd say none of those things if you were a White-footed Mouse that just got snagged by one of these predators.

Tim Tolford, who is an active bander in southwest Ohio and adjacent Indiana, sent along some absolutely incredible photos of owls that he has captured. You can read all about his operation here.

It's shaping up to be a good saw-whet migration. Tim has already caught over a half-dozen, I believe, and Kelly Williams-Sieg and her crew are in the double digits down by Chillicothe.

Few people know that these tiny owls are prowling about, even though they are far more common than we once thought. The work of banders such as Tim and Kelly have demonstrated that Northern Saw-whet Owls may be the most abundant predatorial bird in the boreal forests, and stage enormous southward movements in late fall.

Special efforts are required to entice the owls in to the nets, and conducting this sort of research is very specialized and requires a lot of work.

But, the saw-whet banders have pretty much got the little hooters' number, and when they score a success, this is the result. Saw-whets are remarkably tame, showing no fear of their captors. That may be because many of them have never seen people before, and really don't know what we are. I suspect they also just have a very laid back persona.

Although some people are quick to disparage banding as hard on birds and yielding little in the way of returns for the effort expended, that is certainly not true with saw-whet owls. Had the organized effort known as Project Owlnet not been started, we'd have no idea of the true population level of saw-whets, nor the extent of their migrations. Not that long ago, if more than ten saw-whets were reported in a season in Ohio, it was considered exceptional. Now, we've had falls were over 100 of them have been caught and banded in just two or three locales. Who woulda thunk?

Knowledge is key to succesful conservation, and the banders are providing plenty of new data. Here, Tim has an owl under black light. The amount of pink indicates the age of the feathers, and thus the bird.

Not only does saw-whet banding contribute to our scientific knowledge of this species, it provides an entree to pique people's interest in nature. Tim, Kelly, and most others who band owls are wonderful about allowing visitors to come and observe. And they do. I'm sure that between Tim and Kelly's operations, many hundreds of people, many of whom never would have suspected something like a Northern Saw-whet Owl existed, have gotten to see one up close and personal. For kids, especially, this is likely to be a real watershed moment, and something not soon forgotten. This can only be a good thing.

The media has also become interested in the owls, and there have been numerous newspaper and magazine articles published on saw-whet owl work here in Ohio. All of those pieces have undoubtedly reached several hundred thousand people.
Well, after the bird has been banded and all of its vital statistics noted, and it's been sufficiently ogled and oohed and aahed over, it's time for the release. Tame as they are, they'll sometimes sit, unrestrained, on someone's arm for a few minutes. Eventually, with a quick blur of silent wings, the owl quickly melts back into the black forest and its life of mystery.


Heather said...

Jim, do you know if these wee bitty owls will eat flying squirrels? I've seen the feeding location of our flying squirrels stalked by a Barred Owl once, so I'm wondering if I should be on the lookout for one of these munchkins right now, too. And regarding that photo with the owl lit up by the black light... he looks like he's ready to disco with that lighting set-up!!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

The animals that serve as ambassadors to the natural world, like a sweet, rather tame little owl provide more than simply data as they're netted and examined.
If these adorable little guys can be the first intriguing bird to inspire another's interest, they've accomplished a great deal.
I saw my first this summer at Whitefish Point--and stroked the back of his soft little head. His eyes rolled shut as if he'd fall asleep in their hand!