Owl Research

A Northern Saw-whet Owl in a tree at night.For some, tramping through a cold dark forest in the middle of the night may seem a little creepy, but if your job involves netting an owl, the night holds great promise.

A research station set high in the foothills above Boise marks one of the west’s more popular migration routes for a variety of birds. During the day it hosts biologists and students who catch and band songbirds and hawks. But at night it belongs to the dedicated, if somewhat sleep deprived, owl banders.

Two young Great Horned Owls in a tree.Most of them have never participated in an owl study before and they soon learn that the life of a research biologist can be, well, monotonous. With the nets set and the audio lure playing, the weary banders pass the time playing cards or games until the next check is due. Then they repeat their trek into the drizzling darkness in anticipation of catching an elusive Saw-whet owl.

Jay Carlisle, who heads the research, explains why the bird proves so elusive, “With the Saw-whet owls, they tend to be pretty eruptive in that they migrate in big numbers some years, not so much in others. In ’99 we caught 850 and since then we haven’t topped 250 and we’re going to get the next big eruption movement.”

A female Northern Saw-whet Owl standing on a researcher's arm.At the research station, after two nights of empty nets the wearied researchers’ luck seems to be suddenly changing – they catch an owl. Putting the owl in a cloth bag helps keep it calm until it can be measured, weighed, banded and sexed. The information gathered is stored in a national database accessible to researchers throughout the world.

Unaware of how her capture and banding helps biologists monitor and manage the species, the young Saw-whet owl returns to the night, no worse for the wear. As for the researchers? Well, as the migration season for Saw-whets comes to a close they too will go their separate ways – some to compile data, others to continue their studies. Until then, it’s another game of cards and maybe a quick nap before the next net check.

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