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Owl-banding & wildlife care...

I had my second owl-banding volunteer night on Tuesday -- just a few pictures, because we were too BUSY to stop and take pics. We caught 54 owls -- 2 same-night recaptures, 2 same-season recaptures, 1 previous season recapture, and 49 new ones -- which is the second-biggest night they've had since starting banding in this location 6 years ago. The record is 62... but we only stopped banding on Tuesday because we ran out of bands. We had net-runs of 12 and 13 owls, and the last run had 9 owls, which suggests that if we hadn't run out of bands, we could have stayed open and perhaps broken that record. As it was, I got home at 1:45am.

First, though, a pic of a couple of owls from the demo night on 10/30:

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I think we had like 6 or so owls for the demo? Which is good. You never want a demo where you don't get at least ONE owl! But you really don't want it to be hot-and-cold-running owls, either, because then you wouldn't have time to deal with people. The numbers have been really weirdly variable this year, apparently -- the catch rates will go 3, 6, 27, 4, 3, 13... Not even for discernable reasons, like weather or how bright the moon is. There was no way to predict that Tuesday would have so many owls. It's not like they've been steadily building up or anything.

We're supposed to do net-runs 45 minutes apart. A couple of times, we only managed 1 hour apart, because of the time it took to process the owls from the run. Though, we got really efficient at it by the end!

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I got to release a number of owls. We had a sort of automated system involving a couple of owl-boxes (that you could put the owl into, to allow it to gather itself and have its eyes readjust to the dark, and then fly off when it wanted to), but sometimes the owls would stay in the boxes for a while and there wasn't one free, so one of us had to hand-release. (We very fortunately had a 4th and later 5th volunteer show up, because we really needed them.) Shucky-darn, right?

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We also noticed that the majority of the owls were pretty feisty. Saw-whets are generally known for being pretty calm and tolerant, as birds and particularly raptors go. They never appear panicked, they don't struggle or fight. But they aren't just frozen or passive, either. They look around, they look *at* you (above: the STARE), they will try to grab onto things with their talons, and mostly they clack their beaks to show their impatience with the process. (They may try to bite, but their bite is really not bothersome; it's the talons you have to watch out for.) So the owls we dealt with were quite alert and engaged and beak-clacky; they had so much energy that you'd think they'd be off like a shot when you finally released them.

And some of them were. But there's a pretty wide variation in behavior (and "personality", if you will) amongst the owls -- which, as one of the banders remarked, is what you get to really see when you wind up dealing with so many individuals of one species in a short period of time.

When you hand-release them, you take them outside without any lights on, and hold them until your own eyes adjust a bit more in the dark. Owl retinas have more rods (light sensitive) than cones, and they recover night vision faster than humans do, so once your own eyes are adjusted, it's a fair bet the owl's are *really* adjusted. Then you put them on your arm, and let go; and let them fly off when they feel ready.

So, as I say -- a couple of mine just flew off immediately. A couple flapped a bit and found a grip they liked, and then they perched for a few minutes. I walked up and down with them, to see whether they were looking for a better angle towards various surrounding trees, but I really don't know why they stuck around.

Three of the ones I released were particularly slow about going. When I put them on my arm, they just kind of went forward so they were lying on their breasts, with their heads tipped back and up, and they stayed there. One extended her right wing so that it was draped over the outside of my arm, holding herself in place (and after a bit, I could feel the warmth of her through my sleeve; it was 28 degrees out by that point). Those owls stayed with me about 5 minutes or so -- alert, looking around, but they just seemed comfortable. (In fact, in all those cases, they didn't fly off until the rest of the banders had come outside and walked past me, to go on another net run; one of them didn't even fly off then, but a minute or so after, and I had to run and catch up.)

(I say "her" because most of the owls being caught are females. I mentioned this before, I think -- generally, the ratio is 80% females, some percentage of "unknowns" -- could be either -- and a small percentage of males. Nobody is exactly sure yet why that is. On Tuesday, I finally got to see a male! They look the same as the females, of course, which is why the only way you can tell is by weight and wing measurement. Males are smaller.)

Another thing observed about saw-whets is that they seem to like having their heads and necks stroked and gently rubbed. They will close their eyes and kind of push up into it, like a cat does. It could have something to do with the fact that owls engage in allopreening -- mating pairs preening each other -- and thus, being touched has positive associations, but that's just a guess. With the lying-down owl that stayed with me the longest, I was trying to gently encourage her to stand up and go (mindful of my help being needed to process more owls!), and tried stroking down the outside of her closed wings; every time I did so, she emitted this little bubbling string of chirrups (which was a noise I didn't even know these owls *made*).

In summary, it's incredibly cool to observe these little guys once they've been released and it's up to them what to do next!

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(Above: posing a bit, but still with a wonderfully disgruntled look. This was the wing-draped owl who laid down and hung out for a bit.)

So far, they've banded nearly 250 owls this year. The last big year was 2007, but already we are almost 20 owls over the to-date pace of that year. However, that might not mean anything -- thinking back to the extremely variable numbers cited above, you just don't know whether the capture rate is going to severely drop off now, or what. This might just have been an early migration push, and for the next two weeks we'll get practically nothing.

However, 250 is already 100 more owls than an "average" year -- and that too is unexpected, as previous data had suggested that the population tends to fluctuate in 4-year cycles. (The theory is that it's linked to mouse and vole breeding in Canada -- a big prey year will result in saw-whets laying a lot of eggs that year; the next year when the prey population crashes, so does the owl population. The majority of owls being caught are birds that hatched this year.) But that means they were expecting 2011 to be another big year, not 2010 (since the last big year was 2007).

That's the fun thing about science and nature, I think. You build these hypotheses based on the data you've collected so far, and then nature feels free to come along and upend your expectations.


In addition to the owl-banding volunteering, last weekend I also started volunteering for wildlife care at the same Mass Audubon facility; I'm doing Saturday mornings. (Fortunately, it means getting up no earlier than for work. For someone like me, who is such a night person and hates getting up early, it's painful to lose a weekend sleeping-in day, but I'm giving it a try.)

It was interesting, and kind of fun and rewarding. Being new, I was started out on the duck and goose enclosures. (The ducks and geese are let outside in the morning and come back inside for overnight. Their inside pens have to be completely cleaned out.) This pretty much meant scraping up duck and geese poop; but I guess what's fortunate about that is that they're largely fed pellets, so as poop goes, it could be worse (and smellier). At least it's a very accomplished feeling when you finish and have a nice clean enclosure ready for them!

After that, I was part of the team that went over to Bird Hill, which is where they have several raptors (and a crow) in flight cages that the public can view. All of the animals are of the "can't be released" variety (injured, like a missing eye or wing; or imprinted on humans); it isn't a rehab place. They have a lot of animals and birds that are "education" animals (taken out to schools and stuff), and then some who are just to be viewed, which is what the Bird Hill ones are. I got to go into the flight cages -- with a great horned owl, a little broadwinged hawk, and the crow -- where I picked up any leftover mouse bits (mmm, entrails!), cleaned up visible random poop, and left fresh water and fresh mice (providing a bit of a challenge to parents walking by with small children). That was pretty neat, and not too onerous either.

I'm kind of glad that I'm starting in fall, though. I don't exactly look forward to days when it's raining (everybody has to be fed, no matter the weather), but it's really good that it's not hot or buggy right now.

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Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
editswlonghair
Nov. 4th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
This is so cool! Where are you doing it?
eregyrn
Nov. 5th, 2010 12:52 am (UTC)
Well, I hadn't posted the name of the place recently, partly because of identity-protection issues (since by these posts I can be identified as one of a small # of volunteers, rather than "a random adult who attended one of the programs offered to the public") (even though I know that my identity privacy here is pretty paper-thin; but still), and partly because I don't want to seem to be speaking officially for them, since I'm just a volunteer. (So if anyone is searching for info on the program, I didn't want this to come up as a hit and have it be mistaken for an official statement.)

However! If you hit my "owls" tag -- fourth post back on that, last fall, I posted about attending one of the public programs. So, I'm doing this at the same place. ;-)
okojosan
Nov. 4th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
Another thing observed about saw-whets is that they seem to like having their heads and necks stroked and gently rubbed. They will close their eyes and kind of push up into it, like a cat does.

SO ADORABLE! That first photo, with the foreground owl looking up: the puffy cheeks are so cute.
eregyrn
Nov. 5th, 2010 12:53 am (UTC)
Yeah, I love their big wide heads. (Which are like ALL FEATHERS. All the bulk, I mean.) And they're so soft it kind of feels like fur, until you get down a bit deeper and then you're like, "huh, that's a feather shaft".
hellmutt
Nov. 4th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
Love the angry owls. (here via ankewehner)
eregyrn
Nov. 5th, 2010 12:53 am (UTC)
Don't they make the BEST disgruntled faces? :D (thanks for stopping by! :)
jenlev
Nov. 4th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
These are just awesome. And I'm so glad that you're doing this. :::massive hugs::: and a big big squeee!
eregyrn
Nov. 5th, 2010 12:54 am (UTC)
Squee! Also, zzzzzzzz *clunk* (Actually, I'm better now, but I was a zombie at work yesterday.)
jenlev
Nov. 5th, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)
I don't blame you....early mornings are defnitely not my thing. *hugs*
minnow1212
Nov. 4th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
This is so very cool.
eregyrn
Nov. 5th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
Isn't it? Isn't it? :D I'm glad that others are appreciating my sharing the coolness.

What's amazing about this to me is that until almost exactly 1 year ago, when I attended a demo program for this project, I had no idea these owls even EXISTED. I didn't know owls even CAME that small, and didn't know about this species at all. And that's really exciting in its own way. Not just to get interested in and learn more about an animal you knew of but hadn't worked with or around before, but after 40+ years of living (and not, you know, being *un*interested in nature and stuff, by any means), to discover (for oneself) a completely new animal, right in your own backyard. That's what makes it feel extra-WOW to me.
cofax7
Nov. 5th, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)
Man, you get the best photos! And this is really cool!
eregyrn
Nov. 5th, 2010 01:11 am (UTC)
It's not hard when they're like 2 feet away! They're good little posers, too. (Actually, for me, what's hard is balancing out having to use the flash and standing far enough away so it doesn't wash out the picture. And you can tell that the "stare" picture, I hadn't remember yet to flip it back from the "manual" setting, which is why it's dark and a bit grainy.)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )