Giving a hoot about owls

Posted April 05, 2009, at 8:48 p.m.

UNITY, Maine — A handful of college students gathered in a lab Saturday night and began working.

“One, two, three,” a student called out. That was three mice — as in mice found in the belly of a great horned owl.

Unity College participated this weekend in the Maine Owl Monitoring Program in a unique partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers to count, study and record owls.

Unity College, an environmental science and outdoor-based school, focused on the physiology of the owls — thus the dissection. MIT brought the technology to call to live owls by cell phones.

The Unity students used their cell phones, adapted with microphones, to accept a call from an MIT server in Massachusetts, play owl calls into the woods of Unity, Troy and Burnham, and wait to hear and record responses. The students are studying conservation law, biology and wildlife rehabilitation.

The citizen-science project — a marriage of engineering and biology — is in its seventh year and provides vital data such as owl numbers, owl health and population trends to the Maine Audubon Society and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

MIT uses the project to refine communication technology, according to professor Dale Joachim.

“Counting owls is politically and business-oriented, and there is a lot of money involved,” Joachim said. In states with large logging industries, such as Maine, California and Oregon, loggers must monitor and count owls since some of them are protected species.“They are paying biologists to go into the woods and count,” Joachim said. “MIT is refining the technology that can call the owls, record their answers and extrapolate the data from those recordings.”

Projects such as Unity’s this weekend will allow MIT to “build a tapestry that can be studied over a period of time.”

Joachim said it is challenging to use the cell phones. “We are at the bottom edge of a new set of tools,” he said. “And it raises new questions: How do we make the process more flexible and responsive? How do we use this technology in citizen-science projects? How do we extend digital ecology?”

On their trip to Maine, the MIT scientists experienced their first taste of Moxie and witnessed their first car-deer crash. When at their campus, they study the effects of excitement on sweat, teach cell phones to recognize what they see and study post-traumatic stress disorder in elephants.

Central Maine has a larger than average owl population — 12 varieties of owls live in Maine — and that is why the study is centered there.

But as in many outdoor experiments, Mother Nature had other ideas.

David Potter, the Unity College professor coordinating the project, took “listeners” to the woods twice, once late Saturday night and again before dawn Sunday morning. The group circled Unity Pond and made stops in Burnham, Troy and Unity. The sounds Potter played could be heard nearly a quarter of a mile away.

First the recording played the soft call of a tiny saw-whet owl. The group listened and waited. A few minutes later, it played a barred owl call, a very loud hoot. The group waited, and then the recording played the great horned owl call, a much deeper, resonating call.

Potter said the whole process takes 13 minutes and was repeated at seven locations.

On the first trip, Potter led a group of children of the MIT staff and heard two owls, a woodcock and a killdeer. On the second trip, 14 people attempted to record any owls’ answers.

“There were no owls. There was a lot of water noise and enough wind so that it impacted the sounds,” Potter said. “We could hear some very, very far away, barely recognizable.”

Next Monday, he said, more than 100 other people across Maine will be conducting similar counts on 84 different routes. Although neither the Maine Audubon Society nor DIF&W were able to fund the project this year, Potter volunteered his time, and all data — from both the calling and counting, as well as the dissections — will be turned over to both agencies.

The students who conducted the dissections discovered the owls were in superb condition with plenty of body fat and full stomachs.

Adam Douin of Oakland, one of the participating Unity College students, said Potter’s class is both a science and a communications class.

“We have spent most of the semester getting this technology set up,” he said. “There was a lot of planning involved.”

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