Fishing for owls!

20 11 2008
Canned Owl - Chrissy Guarino

Canned Owl - Chrissy Guarino

Last Friday my friend Chrissy Guarino invited me over to New York to help her and her friend Glenn Proudfoot band Saw Whet Owls. Those of you traveled up to New York last February for the amazing Hoary Redpoll/Rough-legged Hawk/Short-eared Owl/Red-headed Woodpecker extravaganza will remember Chrissy being the local birder extraordinaire who helped us track down most of the great birds on the day (a trip hopefully to be repeated again later this winter).

Regrettably the weather was absolutely stinking on Friday evening and unfortunately the banding was cancelled. Double unfortunately is was also the last weekend that they were putting up the nets for the season. To make me feel better about missing out (or perhaps to rub it in) she sent me a video from earlier in the season of her untangling one of the little cuties from the net they use to catch them in.

Banding of migrant birds allows us to gain insight into their migratory movements, population size and trend, geographical distribution, annual breeding effort, the condition of their breeding and wintering habitats. Catching these migrant owls is an interesting process which requires setting up mist nets and then audio-luring them in with their monotonous territorial calls (basically playing a looped tape of their calls loudly and constantly with a portable stereo). Chrissy goes on to describe the process thus:

“Every 45-60 minutes the nets must be checked so the birds don’t get too tangled or too cold, and also to prevent the Barred Owls from finding them and, uh, I’d rather not say what would happen then. The tiny owls, which are SMALLER than an American Robin, are carefully untangled from the netting while keeping a firm grip on their little feet, which pack quite a formidable set of talons. The little owls are then unceremoniously stuck head first into a tube constructed of two 6-ounce tomato paste cans taped end-to-end. The cans are taped together into a pyramid with the 12 cans forming a 6-pack, with a handy carrying loop (see picture above). “What if you catch more than six,” I asked Glenn. “I stick the rest in your pockets,” replied my new best friend.

The nets are cleared of any debris and the owls are whisked into the little shed where they are measured, weighed, and basically treated as humans are when they are abducted by aliens, minus the probe. Well, except usually there is a DNA swab taken of the inside of their mouth. The birds’ molt pattern of the flight feathers is recorded, a few wing measurements are taken, a few feathers are donated to science, and the owls are again unceremoniously stuck head first into a tomato paste can to be weighed. The little owls patiently put up with this somewhat inconvenient treatment, occasionally snapping their bills to remind you who is boss, receive their new metal leg bands with dignity, and are ready to be released.”

Hopefully next year I’ll finally get over to see this process for myself. I guess it’s always good to have something to look forward to although I must admit I am not very good with delayed gratification. Oh well patience is a virtue as they say. You can find out more about Saw-whet and other US owls at this fantastic website.