Bleary eyed from banding owls

As classes began one morning last week, I hoped, for my students’ sake, that caffeine might accomplish what a mere four hours of sleep did not. Some of them noticed my bleary eyes and asked (in their diplomatic way) whether I was recovering from a mid-life-crisis bender. No, I assured them with sleepy pride, the night before I had experienced a new intoxication: I banded saw-whet owls.

These fist-sized ferocities spend the summer breeding season up north, in dense evergreen forests where they’re more likely to encounter a lynx than an English professor. But during migration, they pass through Maryland on their way to more temperate winters.

The saw-whet’s cuteness is beyond question: They’re round feather-balls with big, expressive eyes. They’re also deliverers of silent, crushing death to an untold number of rodents plucked from the leaf-litter, tossed into gaping beaks and churned into scat, and pellets of bone and fur. To follow the birds’ migration is to follow a trail of carnage.

When you’re holding one of these owls in your hand, both of these aspects — darling and deadly — are on display. You cannot help but bat your eyes at the shining gaze that meets you. You’re also mindful of needle-like talons and a beak that snaps noisily, ready to reward a careless finger with the mouse treatment.

It’s enough to make a nature nerd giddy.

The science behind all of this is even more fascinating. Under the auspices of Project Owlnet, scientists — with assistance from citizen volunteers like me — have collected migration and population data on saw-whets for a few decades, capturing (and sometimes recapturing) owls to determine where they go, how many of them there are and statistics about the species’ overall health.

This project involves setting up hair-thin, impact-forgiving nets in appropriately wooded locations during the migrating seasons, and then, after dark, playing a recording of the bird’s mating call in the nets’ vicinity. A curious owl homes in on the sound and finds itself captured. The Owlnetters gingerly untangle the bird and whisk it away to a nearby study site, where they measure and describe several details, such as wing length, eye color and feather patterns, all of which helps to determine age and sex, among other things. They carefully fit one of the bird’s legs with a tiny identification band so that its data can be retrieved if it’s netted at another site, and then release it back to the darkness.

Maryland has several banding locations, and it’s typically those on the western side of the state that see lots of action, sometimes netting more than a hundred birds a night at peak migration. Here, closer to the bay, banders might see half a dozen over the entire season, but 2018 is looking like an irruption year — that is, a year when the species turns up with unusual abundance. We netted two the night I participated, and about a week before the same location banded 24 in just a couple of hours.

Like the owl itself, this news might be a mix of delight and terror. Delight, of course, to see the species in such plenitude; terror to wonder — albeit prematurely — whether this plenitude correlates with climate crisis indicators.

It may take years of data collection to see the big picture, but one of my more knowledgeable companions shared a working theory: Climatic factors affect conifer seed crops in the northern forests; warmer temperatures produce more seeds; more seeds bring more rodents to eat them; more rodents invite bigger owl broods. No one — least of all me — is going to complain about having more owls around, but if their numbers tell a story, then it’s good that we’re trying to understand it, even if we might not like the conclusion it points to.

The message might be grim, but we can find joy in the medium. Banding owls requires sacrifice from its practitioners, both the scientists and the volunteers, many of whose efforts put my one mostly sleepless night into laughable perspective. (I’ll take another opportunity if it comes.) Most banders have day-jobs, and many have families, but there they are, working night after night, into the small hours, getting cold and muddy, gathering the news that only the owls can tell. If we are going to hear that news, it will be because of such people, putting birds before sleep, getting eye to eye and beak to finger with a natural world that doesn’t care what you have planned the next morning.

Noah Comet is a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, a conservationist, wildlife photographer and avid hiker. His email is comet@usna.edu.

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