Charisma Catalyzes

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A saw-whet is ready for a quick exam when researchers will collect data and affix an identifying leg band.

No one is immune to the charisma of small owls, as far as we know. And that charisma would explain how the volunteers working to band this bird got catalyzed. Thanks to the Lab of Ornithology and this article from the current issue of Living Bird magazine:

A Grassroots Banding Project Reveals How Amazing Northern Saw-whet Owls Are

Story By Scott Weidensaul; Photography By Chris Linder

Owl1There is something wonderful about an autumn night; the sharp bite to the air, the rustle of a north wind in the last leaves clinging to the tops of the oaks, Orion shining in a moonless sky over the central Appalachian ridges of Pennsylvania—and echoing over it all, a repetitive, me­chanical beep that reminds most people of the warning alarm when a garbage truck is backing up.

That sound—in this case, an audio recording played through a pair of bullhorn speakers—isn’t automotive. Instead, it’s the toot-toot-toot call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, the male’s breeding song that’s used by scientists to lure migrating saw-whets out of the star-shot sky and into mist nets. I’ve spent close to a thousand autumn nights like this over the past two decades, in my work as a researcher capturing and studying this mysterious little bundle of feathers. Yet as I climb the lower slope of the ridge that leads to our nets, I’m still as excited as I was back in the 1990s, embarking on our studies of the unseen evening migrations of these most enig­matic raptors in North America.

One thing’s for sure, the hill hasn’t gotten any less steep in the past 23 years. But my companions and I don’t wait to catch our breath; shining our headlamps down along the line of nets, I can see three—no, four—small, gray-brown bodies cradled and wriggling in the mesh, and likely more around the corner where the remaining array forms an L shape. Someone flips a switch to turn off the audio play­back, and the night goes silent as I reach carefully into the net and grasp the small, fully feathered feet of the owl to keep its needlelike talons out of my fingers. In a few moments I have slipped the owl free from the mesh.

Only the size of a soda can, a saw-whet is a diminutive raptor, but don’t mistake its wee size for a lack of moxie. This bird has fluffed out its feathers in a bid to intimidate the giant primate holding it, and is rapidly clacking its bill in a dead-seri­ous threat as I slip the little owl into a lightweight cotton bag and cinch the drawstring tight. The owl snaps its beak once again and I glance down to see the tips of eight sharp, shiny black talons poking through the cloth as I move to the next bird.

By the time we head back down the hill to a little cabin, we have nine freshly caught saw-whets in cloth bags. The birds must be weighed, measured, sampled for blood and feather analysis, and outfitted with tiny metal leg bands—the latest additions to a continental monitoring effort that has solved some (but by no means all) of the mysteries surrounding this tiny bird of prey…

Read the whole story here.

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