Monday, November 19, 2012
Until the mid-2000's, no one had any clue as to just how common Northern Saw-whet Owls were in Ohio. If one were to go only by the relatively few reports made by birders who lucked into roosting birds, you'd have had to assess their status as rare, or uncommon at best. Of course, it stands to reason that such a secretive animal would largely go undetected. In my guide, Birds of Ohio, which came out in 2004, I made the statement: "...the vast majority of Northern Saw-whet Owls no doubt go undetected in Ohio".
Such opinions are speculative, however - concrete research is needed to prove or disprove such things. Well, 2004 was the year that the Chillicothe banding station whose work is featured here got fired up. Since that time, they have captured well over 300 owls, in a habitat and a locale that no one would have predicted as being optimal for saw-whets. Their efforts are not solo - a few others also focus on saw-whets in Ohio or nearby, and they too have captured a great many birds. Thesee banding stations are part of a systematic nationwide survey of Northern Saw-whet Owls known as Project Owlnet, and this research collaborative has revealed reams of information about the migratory habits of what was not long ago one of our most poorly understood North American birds.
Having an accurate knowledge of an animal is key to successfully conserving its populations, and in the case of the Northern Saw-whet Owl, it is the efforts of banders who have revealed the mysteries of what could be our most charismatic owl.
Owls caught and banded in Chillicothe have been recaptured numerous times at far-flung places across eastern North America, and the Chillicothians have captured a number of owls that were banded in other areas. All of this work via Project Owlnet has revealed a scope of migration that no one was previously aware of. October through mid-December is the tiime of the big southward push, and it appears that such irruptions are cyclical, and probably related to populations of voles and other small animals which are the owls' primary prey.
Few birds are as mellow as saw-whets. For the most part, they make no attempt to struggle or otherwise indicate displeasure; mostly just staring curiously at their captors. After all, most of these owls have probably never seen people, coming from the wilds of the vast boreal forest as they do. Furthermore, saw-whets have low metabolisms and are not high-strung or fidgety, which probably serves them well to conserve energy.
The bulletin board above is one of several in the research lab, and they are papered over with newspaper articles, stories from magazines, and above all, notes from kids who have visited. The latter crowd is especially important, if we want to grow a new crop of conservationists. Seeing a magical little owl that seemingly appeared miracously from the gloom of the nighttime forest is sure to make an impression, and I'm sure that some of the saw-whets capured at this station have served as "spark birds" for budding young conservationists-to-be.