I had an owl on my shoulder.
Owls are sexy. They are the subject of myth and legend in nearly every culture. They are mysterious, perhaps wise.
Maine hosts many owls, though only three species are widespread breeders. The great horned owl is awesome for its size and ferocity. The barred owl lurks in forests and wooded neighborhoods, and is the owl most often seen. The northern saw-whet owl is, well, just as cute as the dickens.
Saw-whet owls are tiny, about the size of a robin. They are quite tame, content to sit still even when approached. They often perch at eye level, and many hunters can relate to the feeling of being watched, only to discover that they are indeed being watched. Compared with other birds of prey, scientists don’t know much about them.
Fortunately, they migrate. And migrating birds can be caught. Gotcha, little fella.
Dave Brinker is an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He’s been banding owls for over three decades. In 1994, he joined others in founding Project Owlnet, a support group for saw-whet owl banders.
Coincidentally, some years later, a few biologists were banding songbirds on Petit Manan in Steuben, part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Being young, and accustomed to subsisting on coffee and Doritos, they decided to spend a few sleepless nights trying for owls, too. They caught several. It soon became apparent that this site was a major travel corridor for northern saw-whet owls. Support from Project Owlnet naturally followed.
And that’s how I came to have an owl on my shoulder. I arrived at dusk, following other biologists along an obscure road beyond a locked gate. Brinker was there, helping to train Devin Strayley, this year’s lead bander for the project. Like all wildlife biologists, Strayley possesses the two qualities most important for field researchers: a passion for wildlife and a willingness to work for peanuts.
We donned headlamps, and erected the mist nets. One string of nets was prepared for saw-whet owls. A few hundred yards away, another string of nets was arranged to catch larger owls. At each net, owl calls were set up to play over loudspeakers. When a passing owl hears these calls, it is apt to investigate, either due to a lingering sense of territorial aggression left over from breeding season, or because the presence of a calling owl suggests that this is a safe place for other owls. Either way, the owl gets caught in the net.
Despite the light of a half-moon, the Milky Way was bright over the rural landscape. We listened. Saw-whet owl calls blared from one corner of the woods. The other corner echoed with the calls of boreal owl and long-eared owl, two owls that are rare visitors to the state. I also heard a great horned owl calling.
Wait, what? Is that on the tape? No, this one was a real owl, calling from beyond the saw-whet nets. One biologist worried that this would scare off the small owls, but Brinker explained that great horned owls don’t eat saw-whets. It’s too much effort for too little meat. A barred owl is much more likely to attack a saw-whet owl, or to be attacked by a great horned owl. Owl life is complicated.
An hour elapsed. We checked the nets. Sure enough, a saw-whet owl was caught in the web, awaiting our rescue. Straley was meticulous about safety, even removing his watch so that nothing caught. He systematically untangled the owl and placed it lightly in a sack. The owl seemed unperturbed. Saw-whet owls snap their bills when annoyed, but this one was calm.
We went to the trailer, where various measurements assessed the owl’s weight, size, age and gender. This kind of research is important. You can learn a lot about the health of the Maine forest by studying the creatures that find nourishment in it. Owl populations are highly cyclical, dependent on the annual abundance of prey species in their nesting territories.
At last, after placing a bird band on the owl’s leg, we stepped outside to set it free. Owls need a moment to regain their night vision, after spending time in a lighted trailer. The normal technique is to place them on an arm or shoulder and wait for them to take off when they’re ready. I offered to be the launching pad. And that was how I came to have an owl on my shoulder.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s December 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.