We’re being invaded! And you probably don’t know it. But it’s a nice invasion: migratory saw-whet owls.
On Nov. 18, Brad Bumgardner gave a program at Pokagon State Park on Project Owlnet. Brad, a native of Angola, works at the Indiana Dunes State Park but was brought to Pokagon for the day by the Stockbridge Audubon Society in Ft. Wayne. For the past four years Indiana Dunes State Park has had an owl banding program, one of several in the state. For many years the thought was that saw-whet owls were only here occasionally, but since we have been netting, banding, and releasing them, we have found there may be as many as 5,000 in the state each year.
Saw-whets are tiny owls, only seven inches long and weighing less than a blue jay. They’re small, but have an attitude! They bite, scratch, and generally give the banders a tough time. They are caught in a mist net, gently removed, weighed, measured, banded, and released. Their gender is determined by weight – the females are heavier than the males. There is a weight range for males and females and the ones that fall in between those ranges are recorded as “gender unknown.” Their age is calculated by the colors in the feathers in their wings.
When first hatched, usually in May, they are a cinnamon color, but they molt the following September and get their adult plumage. Only that first time do they lose all their feathers at the same time, so a bird with consistent color was hatched in the current year. After that, losing all their feathers at the same time would render them flightless so the feathers grow in at different times, hence the different colors. A bird with two-toned feathers is in its second year, and with more colors they are determined to be three years or older.
These little guys eat small mammals, mostly mice. Their breeding territory in Northern Michigan and Canada. Because they live where not many people roam, they have little fear of humans and if you’re observant, you should be able to get quite close to one. I’m guessing the banded ones are probably a little more wary of humans!
Indiana Dunes State Park has four nights during the year when they have public programs about the banding and you can watch it being done. They just finished with their public programs for this year. The main migration period is the end of October through November and again in March. A few stragglers may remain later, but peak numbers are during those months and thus your best chance of seeing one. When the leaves are on the trees they perch in deciduous trees, but are very hard to find because of the leaves. Once the leaves fall they sleep in pine trees, usually not too far from the trunk and are easier to see. They are most active after sundown, but you might spy one napping during the day.
Forty-four owls were banded this year at Indiana Dunes State Park. In 2007, 450 saw-whets were banded at three stations in Indiana, a banner year. The saw-whets appear to have a four year cycle, so 2011 should have been a big year but for whatever reasons it wasn’t. This year has been better, which probably means the rodent population was meager further north.
Project Owlnet is funded through grants and donations. No tax dollars are spent on this program. Not a lot is known about the migratory habits of these little birds, but the banding program is starting to change that. With new technology, batteries are becoming lighter weight and some saw whet-owls were outfitted with a geolocator, which is similar to a GPS. It tracks the latitude and longitude where the birds are at regular intervals. So far only one bird has been recaptured with its geolocator intact, and that was only last week, so new information will be available soon. One of the saw-whets banded at Indiana Dunes State Park (without a geolocator) was recaptured in Maine the following year. Bumgardner suggested we may find that they are nomadic more than migratory.
Soarin’ Hawk, a raptor rehabilitation program in Northeast Indiana, released a saw-whet at the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site in Rome City during the Owl-oween festivities there last month and I got to see the little guy up close. He had been injured in a windstorm earlier in the summer and was ready to be on his own again. The rehabilitator carried him to the parking lot, opened her hands, and off he flew into the woods, a success story of man and nature working together.
And don’t forget about the Winter Afternoon at Maple Wood this coming Sunday. Crafts from 2-2:30 p.m., guided walk in the woods at 2:30 p.m., and Christmas sing-along at 3 p.m. See you there!