MEDORA - They rank as one of the smallest owls in North America. About the size of a robin, northern saw-whet owls can be found in North Dakota. They are fascinating, not only because of their small size as compared to their much larger cousins, but because not much is known about them.
"They are adorable and small, like the little Teddy Bears of the owl world," said Rheanna Fraser, Ontario, Canada.
Fraser has an environmental studies degree and has been doing bird work for four years for various non-profit organizations. The saw-whet project is sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Bird Conservatory. Fraser said she has done other bird research projects in northern Manitoba, southern California, Nevada and Washington, D.C. This is her second year of participating in the saw-whet capture and banding program in North Dakota.
This bird in the hand shows the size of fully grown saw-whet owls. The photograph was taken during a banding operation near Medora.
Some of the tiny owls have been netted in the vicinity of Medora's Bully Pulpit golf course, but most of the capture efforts are taking place in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Banding is done at the Peaceful Valley Ranch.
"We are trying to figure out where the owls are coming from and where they are going," said Fraser. "We need to fill in the gaps of how they are migrating through the plains. It's pretty neat."
Saw-whets are somewhat friendly, certainly when compared to other owls. Their defense is to sit still, a tactic which often leads to humans getting very close to them. Capture of the birds takes place after sunset. A small mesh net is used. The birds are lured in by the use of recorded mating calls.
"They are attracted to that," said Fraser. "We check the nets every half hour."
"As far as nocturnal birds, they are so attracted by the lure," added Keith Bagnall, head owl bander from Bellingham, Wash. "It's a good species to study because there are generally a lot of them and they are widespread. A lot of people are studying them. They are not an endangered owl."
More than 60 of the likeable owls have been captured near Medora this year. One of them was considered a terrific find. It was wearing a band from a capture site near Duluth, Minn.
"That helps us figure out where they came from," said Fraser. "We also have captured three that were banded in Saskatchewan and one from somewhere we don't know yet."
Fraser was awaiting information on the band in question. Hopefully, the information will help piece together the movements and habits of northern saw-whets.
"That's one of our primary purposes, to fill in the gaps with migration that occurs in the Great Plains and forested river corridors, from Canada to the South," explained Bagnall "Maybe we'll learn about population trends too, if their numbers are increasing or declining."
The trapping area was chosen because it is located where the saw-whet migration corridor necessarily narrows due to terrain. Saw-whets have a preference for conifers, such as those that are found in the Badlands near Medora.
A cool experience
Dave and Ellin Lindee of Minot are avid bird watchers. When they learned of the saw-whet banding project they asked to observe and volunteered their help.
"It was a great experience, a cool experience. It was a blast," said Dave Lindee. "They told us so much we didn't know. We got to band seven birds. I had one sitting in my hand. I started talking to it and it started looking at me. It literally turned around in my hand."
Lindee's reaction didn't come as a surprise to Bagnall.
"Everyone who sees one never forgets it," said Bagnall. "Some saw-whets are a little more fiesty than others but they generally are pretty darn friendly and cute."
The average saw-whet weighs about three ounces with a length of 6-8 inches and a wingspan ranging from 17 to 22 inches. Saw-whets primarily feed on mice and voles, but will occasionally prey on other small mammals, even insects.
"Each owl seems to have a different personality," said Fraser. "They are generally docile. Most of them don't try to bite or grab."
"When we were there it turned out to be a perfect night," said Dave Lindee. "There was very little wind and clear skies. People can talk about the big city all they want, but there's nothing like getting outdoors."
North Dakota's outdoors, particularly in the oil fields in the western part of the state, has been undergoing rapid change due to unprecedented activity. While not everything is known about the influences on nature by the influx of men and machines, it appears a certainty that wildlife will struggle to adjust. That is one of the factors that increases the importance of the current saw-whet owl banding project.
"It's pretty harsh. We were really surprised by all the truck traffic," said Bagnall, who had been in western North Dakota previously. "I think it's really good that we are getting all the information now before it gets more difficult."