by Jenna Cox '17
Earlier this month, the Graceland Sustainability team, along with students from Sustainability Coordinator Jen Abraham-White’s critical thinking course, had a special opportunity presented to us: we were invited to watch the netting, banding and rerelease of northern saw-whet owls in order to gain knowledge on their migration habits.
Veronica Mecko is a representative of Project Owlnet. We joined her to observe how she contributes to research on the northern saw-whet owl. There are hundreds of researchers like her working in over 125 locations across North America. Project Owlnet aims to illuminate more about the biology and movements of these birds. It was previously understood that they breed in southern Canada and the northern United States, but it is now known that outside of the breeding season, the owls migrate all over the U.S. However, much about these owls remains a mystery, which is why organizations like Project Owlnet are crucial to understanding the species.
On the first evening of the project, we followed Veronica a few miles out of Graceland to a farm in Missouri that was our netting site. She showed us the mist nets that we would be using to capture the owls; they were so fine, you could hardly see them. When owls fly into the nets, they are caught in a sort of pocket, until they are retrieved by a researcher. Veronica set up an audio lure in a tree nearby, which played an MP3 loop of the mating call of a male saw-whet owl. The speakers played the sound loudly to attract migrating owls into the area.
While we waited for a catch, Veronica gave a PowerPoint presentation on Project Owlnet and the natural history of the owls. The northern saw-whet owl used to be considered very rare in the U.S., and for good reason. They weigh as much as a robin, and the average length of a female owl is only about 21 centimeters, while males are even smaller. They mainly feed on mice under the cover of the trees late at night. Their tiny size makes them vulnerable prey, especially to the great horned and barred owl. For these reasons, they are as elusive as can be.
We checked the nets just after dark, but they were empty. As we waited, we chatted and played glow frisbee and patted a very friendly barn cat. A friend of Veronica’s, who has helped her with the banding process before, joined us, as well as other friends and Graceland faculty later in the evening. We checked the nets three more times but caught nothing but leaves. A storm began to roll in, so Veronica closed the nets, and we called it a night at 10:30.
The second night, we went later with a group of students from Jen’s critical thinking class. It was chilly and cloudy, but there was no rain. We were hopeful. After staying out until nearly 11 p.m. with no success, our group headed back. Just after we left, they caught three owls, which was exciting. There was still a chance we might see them!
On the third night, we stayed out even later. The sky was clear, and there was a northern breeze. I gazed at the Milky Way while Veronica spoke to the newcomers, hoping the stars we could finally see would align in our favor. We had a good feeling that night, and our guts were right. We caught two owls not long after arriving!
We gathered around as Veronica showed us the banding and measuring process. She was able to determine whether the owls were male or female by weight and length. We caught two females and, unsurprisingly, they were lovely. She determined relative age based on the darkness of the wing feathers; a uniform, darkly colored wing indicates an owl hatched this year. She was also able to determine age by shining a UV light on the inside of their wings; there is a protein called perforin found in newly grown feathers, which shines pink under that light.
She secured an aluminum band around each of their ankles and recorded the number on the band. If another researcher somewhere across the country recaptures one of those birds, they will contact the banding group in Missouri, and Project Owlnet will be able to learn how far the owl travelled. Veronica told us that one owl banded at Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa was recaptured in Chico, California, over 1,600 miles away. Incredible, right?
The owls remained calm during all of the measurements, as Veronica and her friend handled them very gently. We imagined they were likely frightened, but we only had them for 20 minutes before releasing them back into the night. The simple bands that now reside on their ankles are really shedding light on the migratory habits of the species, and are opening doors into more specialized research to be done. Satellite bands may even be an option in the future, so that owls can be tracked on an individual basis during their mysterious travels across the continent. In the meantime, Project Owlnet will still be at work, staying out late in the dark all over the country, doing their part to learn and educate about the elusive lives of the tiny northern saw-whet owls.