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IU researchers led study of owls that are 'cute little fluff balls'

Nov. 16, 2016

Accompanied by the “melodious” toot-toot-toot of a northern saw-whet owl call, IU students, faculty and other volunteers spent their fall and winter evenings measuring, banding, weighing and releasing the migratory owls.

Sawwhet owl

Professor Vicky Meretsky with the first northern saw-whet owl of the season for the Project Owlnet team. | PHOTO BY COLLEEN FRIEDLY, DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY

The call "sounds like a backing up dump truck,” said Vicky Meretsky, director of the Master of Science in environmental science program at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “If you do this lots, you end up dreaming these toots.”

Trained bird banders and local volunteers converge on Yellowwood State Forest every October to play the call in hopes of luring northern saw-whet owls into mist nets. The data that is collected informs research into the bird’s local habits, such as how long they stay in the area. The numbers are added to a growing database that will eventually provide a long-term comparison.

Described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “a tiny owl with a catlike face, oversized head and bright yellow eyes,” the northern saw-whet owl is common across North America. It’s also a delight to hold.

“It’s about as adorable as you can get. It’s extremely addicting,” said IU biology senior lecturer and local Project Owlnet coordinator Susan Hengeveld. “They can get you with their talons, and they can bite you, but if you hold them correctly, they’re cute little fluff balls.”

Meretsky has banded since the effort’s start in 2002. SPEA master’s and Ph.D. graduate Ross Brittain, now a dean at Alderson Broaddus University in Philippi, West Virginia, said he started owl tracking even before he decided to attend SPEA.

“I did not start Project Owlnet. That honor belongs to David Brinker in Maryland,” said Brittain, the local sites’ master bander. “However, I did kickstart the northern saw-whet owl banding stations in Indiana using the Project Owlnet protocol, but I did not do that alone.”

Brittain said he was inspired by travels to watch fall hawk migrations at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. Those interactions led to an invitation to volunteer at a northern saw-whet owl banding station in 2000.

“We caught five owls that night, and I was hooked,” Brittain said.

Researchers freeing owl

SPEA graduate student Jorgen Rose, left, working with professor Vicky Meretsky to free a northern saw-whet owl from a mistnet as part of Project Owlnet. | PHOTO BY COLLEEN FRIEDLY, DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY

Once the owls have been released from the nets, they are placed in an owl tube -- a simple device meant to keep the birds and researcher safe -- until the creatures’ data can be recorded and they can be released. The local site has many volunteers; several are affiliated with SPEA, but only trained banders hold the owls.

Volunteers might get the chance to let an owl perch on their arm since the birds are blinded by the headlamps the researchers use and their eyes need to readjust to the darkness before they take off, Hengeveld said.

When Brinker set up the coordinated network around 1995, the migratory habits of the northern saw-whet owl were not well understood, according to the Project Owlnet website.

The research found that previous ideas about the birds’ behavior were incorrect, Meretsky said.

“Our understanding of the migrating patterns of the species were revealed to be stunningly wrong,” she said. “Banding stations found hundreds of owls where it was assumed there would be one or two.”

Brittain, and those he had recruited to help him, set up the first banding station in Yellowwood State Forest off State Road 46 east of Bloomington.

“(We) captured 59 owls that first year, starting the process of rewriting the natural history of this species in the state,” Brittain said.

That banding station and another set up in a participant’s backyard have helped generate a scientific article published in The Journal of Raptor Research and build the data inventory for future use.

The number of birds recorded at the two stations has revealed migratory patterns, but with only a few years’ worth of records, it’s hard to make any strong conclusions just yet, Hengeveld said. However, a few years have been “irruptive,” including this year, in which significant numbers of owls are caught.

According to Meretsky, while the northern saw-whet owl is far better understood than it was before Project Owlnet took off, the owls’ Canadian boreal forest habitat makes it a bellwether for what’s happening in that region. The effects of climate change are likely to show up early in northern areas, and by proxy in the habits of the northern saw-whet owl.

By studying the owls, "(we) keep our fingers on the pulse of the boreal forest,” Meretsky said. 

The work of IU's professors and students in researching northern saw-whet owls align with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a vibrant community of scholars and a commitment to student success.

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