Mighty Mini Owls

ArrayNovember 5, 2020 at 3:43 pm

Though calm in appearance, a feisty female saw-whet owl snapped her beak repeatedly, warning us of her very sharp, curved upper beak. With zygodactyl feet, two toes are usually in the front and two in the back, however, owls have the unique ability to rotate their fourth digit to the front, allowing them to perch, hold food, and grab prey. Owls are raptors, and even this miniature predator standing at just seven inches tall has mighty talons designed for ripping and tearing meat.

Commissioner Judy Camuso carefully holds the saw-whet owl, avoiding both the beak and talons as she writes down measurements and observations. The large yellow eyes actually vary slightly in shade from one owl to the next, providing insight to the age of the owl. A more accurate method of aging the owl is by examining its flight feathers which are typically molted after breeding in a predictable pattern, permitting a more accurate determination of age. Judy also measures the beak, takes the weight of each owl, and blows into their plumage. A gust of dust flies out as she blows; the more dust, the more current the molt.

Though Saw-whet owls are one of the most common owls in the Northeast, they are rarely seen because of their secretive lifestyle. They roost in dense conifers and are highly nocturnal, providing little opportunity to the enthusiastic birder to catch a glimpse of this spunky raptor. Currently, it’s believed that saw-whet owl populations are stable and widespread, and projects like this allow us to continue to monitor the population and detect potential changes from climate change and impacts to habitat.

Judy is certified to capture and band these owls, and she has been donating her fall nights to these nocturnal creatures for over 20 years, contributing invaluable data to Project Owlnet. Project Owlnet facilitates the collaboration, innovation, and communication between a network of owl-migration researchers in North America and abroad. Judy’s banding and data contribution provides standardized data to better understand the saw-whet’s migration timing and patterns. Prior to Project Owlnet, it was believed that saw-whet owls were extremely rare. It wasn’t until consistent data was collected in a consistent method as Judy is doing, that it became clear how common these secretive owls really are. As research continues, Project Owlnet seeks to address questions and concerns about food availability, population changes, and human influences, hoping to protect and preserve a future for saw-whets.

As Judy finished collecting measurements on this group of saw-whets, she showed us one last show-stopping characteristic: the flight feathers when placed in front of ultraviolet light, glow bright pink. It is yet another way to properly classify the age of these owls, as the florescent color fades as they age. Questions have been raised about the possibility of owls seeing ultraviolet as part of the spectrum, potentially indicating purpose for mate selection.

After releasing the first three caught, enough time has passed where we return to the long mist net where four more saw-whet owls are calmly waiting to be banded. Judy carefully untangles each one, placing them into their own small cotton bag for careful transport back to the house where we start measurements once again.