For the Birds Radio Program: Adopt an Owl

Original Air Date: Sept. 25, 1995

Today Laura Erickson tells how to adopt an owl and watch owls get banded at Hawk Ridge. 4:07

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The first frost warning brings most people’s thoughts to tomatoes and other fragile garden plants. Me—I think of owls. Saw-whet Owls, those tiny, fluffy creatures of the night in the northwoods, move silently over our houses those first cold nights. Last year, when I let my little puppy Betsy outside at midnight one October night, a saw-whet flew right over her, ready to grab the tiny white spot on her dark brown back, until it realized it wasn’t a mouse but part of a whole dog. That night at Hawk Ridge, about a quarter mile from my house as the owl flies, Dave Evans banded over a hundred. Last Tuesday, on the night of September 19, he banded over 40, an auspicious season opener.

We usually don’t think of owls as particularly migratory. Many Barred and Great Horned Owls live out their entire lives within a few miles of the tree in which they were hatched. But occasionally individuals of these species retreat in fall and winter, especially Great Horned Owls from the far north. The arctic race is almost as white as the Snowy Owl, and people often confuse them. If someone calls me about a Snowy Owl in a tree, I always ask if it had ear tufts, and so far the answer has always been ‘yes,’ meaning it’s really a Great Horned. Snowy Owls themselves are somewhat migratory. Every year Snowies turn up in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and some years so many move south that they can be found in Alabama. But they are more of what ornithologists call an ‘irruptive’ species, moving only irregularly, than a truly annual migrant. Some species of owls are truly migratory, moving annually in a predictable direction. Long-eared Owls breed in the north woods, and every fall migrate over Hawk Ridge. Dave Evans may band two or three on a good night, and from 50 to over 100 every season. But the owl most likely to be netted at Hawk Ridge is the little Saw-whet Owl. In perfect conditions, Dave has had between two and three hundred in a single night, and he usually gets close to 1000 every season, without luring them in. These little owls simply happened to fly in the airspace of Dave’s nets. Imagine how many of them there are out there.

Watching owl banding has always been impossible for all but a select few, but this year Kim Eckert is arranging for people to get back into the banding station to watch the owls get netted, banded, and released. Unlike hawks, which are extremely nervous while being handled by people, Saw-whet Owls are not only tolerant but seem downright pleased with all the attention. When he has several to deal with, Dave sets the extras on shelves in the shack, and the little guys watch everything with interest and good humor. Sometimes they’re so reluctant to leave after he’s done that he actually has to shoo them away.

For the next three Fridays—September 29 and the first two Fridays of October—people will be brought back to the banding station at 9:00 to observe owl banding. There’s only one catch—to go along, you have to adopt an owl. For a $40 contribution to help keep the banding project going at the Ridge, you get to watch the banding, and receive a photo of your personal owl along with a fact sheet about it and a certificate of adoption with the band number of your bird. If Dave catches enough while you’re there, you even get to release your personal adopted baby. If you’re interested in signing up or want more details, give Kim a call–he’s in Duluth at 525-6930. If you hit owl banding on the right night, this is one of the genuinely wonderful pleasures that will remain in your memory forever.