Down East 2013 ©
When Judy Camuso started capturing and banding elusive saw-whet owls in her backyard in Freeport more than a decade ago, she never dreamed her research might endanger her job. She suspected the tiny owl might be migratory and said so, a radical contradiction of the conventional ornithological wisdom. One owl expert called her employer at the time, the Maine Audubon Society, and demanded that the executive director put a stop to her work.
He refused. Within five years, owls Camuso had banded in Maine had shown up as far away as South Carolina. Camuso had discovered another piece of information about a bird that is more mystery than most.[For the rest of this story, see the October 2008 issue of Down East.]
Bird-watching is said to be the fastest growing hobby in America. One reason for its popularity is that most birds are active during daylight hours, making them easy to see. As an added benefit, daytime activity lets ornithologists be confident of at least some basic facts about birds, such as where in the country this or that species is likely to be found.
Except for owls. Aegolius acadicus — saw-whet, to its friends — is the smallest owl in the Northeast, and it’s quite common in Maine. But few people ever see one or know much about its habits, and the
experts don’t know much more. Even a top bird book like The Sibley Guide to Birds is confident enough about the saw-whet’s range across the Northeast in a swath from Nova Scotia to New Jersey. But south and westward, the map develops a case of the measles, showing isolated spots that suggest it may be displaying the distribution of watchers as much as the owl.
Camuso, now a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, started banding saw-whet owls as part of a national network of ornithologists trying to untangle some of the bird’s secrets. Saw-whets are on the move in the fall, and she is out every night, waiting for them to flutter into the mist nets she sets up in the woods behind her house. To pique the bird’s curiosity, a cassette tape of a calling male plays on an endlessly repeated loop.
That’s the high, mellow sound — poo poo poo — I hear as I reach Camuso’s house one late October night. I haven’t heard it since last year, nor could I have described it, in advance, on a bet. But it is one of those distinctive calls that, when one hears it again, comes back in a flash: saw-whet owl. The night before, a string of similar notes almost convinced me one was in the pine behind my house, but it was a neighbor calling her cat.
Inside, Camuso’s kitchen has been turned into an operating theater. On the table, aluminum bird bands, micrometers, scales — the tools of the bird bander’s trade — are everywhere. An assortment of little bags is already hanging from cabinet handles over the sink. Each one contains a somewhat baffled saw-whet owl waiting to be weighed, measured, and banded.
Camuso herself is sorting through a pile of data cards, and she looks a little weary. In the past four weeks, she and her cohorts have banded more than a hundred birds, which is about average. The seasonal record is almost five hundred, and on occasion she has banded as many as fifty birds in one night.
At first, she was not at all keen on the idea of bird banding. Getting tangled in a web, being handled by giants, and having a leg iron clamped on an ankle must surely be more stress than is good for a little bird, she feared. But, as a scientist, Camuso realized the need for data that only individual owls can provide. She got her bird bander’s license in 1997 and has spent her fall evenings handling saw-whet owls ever since. “It’s hard not to get addicted to that bird,” she says, smiling toward the little bags. “They’re so cute.”
But before she can get to them, her colleague, Steve Walker, enters with a barred owl, the saw-whet’s much bigger cousin. Barred owls are bad news for saw-whets, finding them an appealing snack. This one had been hanging around the mist nets for several nights, so Camuso and Walker decided to trap it before their banding station became a cafeteria.
Along with the barred owl, a scout troop dribbles back into the house, fathers in tow. (These trapping and banding sessions are great educational opportunities for the whole family, and Maine Audubon offers field trips for the public on certain nights.) One of the dads carries a fairly durable-looking wire mesh cage in which a white mouse scuttles about, apparently unconcerned that it has lately been employed as bait.
Camuso holds the barred owl in one hand with a tight grip on its talons. Her other hand probes behind the two great disks that make up the barred owl’s face. Almost a quarter of these birds’ size is feathers, and her finger goes in up to the second knuckle before she finds the owl’s ears, a naked hole on either side, one considerably lower than the other. By enhancing the stereo effect of any noise its prey may make, these “lopsided” ears allow the bird to hunt in total darkness. In a saw-whet owl, this feature is so extreme that the whole skull is asymmetrical, as if its jaw were swollen.
A short screech — from Camuso. “Yuck. It’s one of those disgusting flat flies.” Flat flies are parasites; flat so they can slip in among an owl’s dense feathers. “Actually, they are kind of neat,” she
resumes, “if you like creepy-crawly type things.”
With hooks to hold on to their host’s feathers, flat flies are well adapted to feed by drilling into the blood-gorged shaft of a new feather. Too many on one bird leads to anemia. One probably won’t do much harm, except that flat flies transmit the West Nile virus and can infect northern owls, otherwise protected by their heavy mosquito-proof plumage.
Having examined the barred owl, Camuso consigns it to a pillowcase and a dark room. “A time-out,” chirps one of the junior posse. “For bad behavior,” adds his brother. She’ll keep it incommunicado until the nets are closed around midnight.
After a good curtain raiser, it’s time for the main event. Camuso takes down a little bag and hangs it on a portable scale. One of the scouts is already seated at the table beside the pile of data sheets. “Eighty-seven grams,” Camuso notes, and the scribe writes it down. Then she unties the bag and gingerly extracts the evening’s first saw-whet owl.
Where the barred owl had beamed with a kind of noblesse oblige, its pint-sized relative can only be described as seriously annoyed. Its eyes –— fierce, yellow, and set off by a black mascara ring — flash in-your-face defiance. Clicking its beak with rage, the saw-whet strains at its captor’s grip, loses its balance, and founders in a welter of wings. It is quickly set to rights, but dignity is shot. A final click expresses its disgust at one and all, and the little owl retreats into a sulk.
As soon as the bird is calmer, Camuso gently opens its wings and examines them. This one’s primary feathers are uniformly colored, which only occurs their first summer. “Hatch year,” she calls out and dictates various measurements. Turning the little chap over, she blows on the feathers of its breast until the skin is exposed. “Fat two,” she says, disregarding an outburst of clicks at this further indignity. Body fat is vital for any migrating bird’s survival, and saw-whet researchers use a scale of one (skinny) to three (tubby). Other measurements include tail, beak, even eye color (a national paint manufacturer provides the color chart).
And sex. For some reason, everyone seems to catch significantly more females than males. Is it because the males stay on the breeding territories to keep the home fires burning, while their mates head south? Some observers have noted that males are around, but tend to watch the proceedings from the safety of a tree. Are they shyer? Or could it be that since the mating call on the tape is the male’s, it’s the females who find it irresistible?
The last bit of business is to apply the band. Its unique nine-digit number will tell anyone recovering this particular owl who banded it, when, and where. With one hand — the other keeps the bird safely immobile — Camuso fits the little aluminum ring into the jaws of what look like heavy-duty pliers. In comparison, the owl’s tiny leg seems impossibly fragile. I wonder how Camuso can crimp the band closed without amputating the claw. But it’s already done, and she is clearing the leg of feathers and making sure the ring rotates freely without falling off. The whole procedure — measuring and banding — has taken under five minutes. Aside from the hour or so the bird was in the bag. Even birds spend ages in the doctor’s waiting room.
With scientific data out of the way, the fun part of the evening can begin. Owls have other interesting features beside their ears. Kids and parents pull their chairs up, and Camuso gives the little bird a pencil to grip. As she twists it, the owl switches its four toes around the perch, sometimes three in front, sometimes two and two. One of the toes goes either way, which lets the owl arrange its talons better to grasp a perch or capture its prey.
After this, the questions fly fast and furious. How long do saw-whet owls live? What do they eat? Where does the name come from?
Camuso’s enthusiasm bubbles through her answers. She recaptured one owl six years after banding it as a two-year bird, so that one reached the age of eight at least. Saw-whet owls eat small animals — mice, voles, frogs — and large insects such as grasshoppers and the like. Its call sounds like a saw being sharpened the old-fashioned way, on a whet stone, hence the name; but Walker gets a laugh likening it to the beep of a reversing truck. Another link with our agricultural past gone.
Before letting the owl go, we turn off all the lights so it can re-accustom its eyes to the night. Camuso holds it up to my ear. At 250 beats per minute, the owl’s heartbeat is like a cat purring. Then she puts the warm little bundle into my cupped hands. “Just open your hands and wait,” she says, like the medium at a séance.
I can’t see anything in the dark, but for a second or two I feel the soft feathers on my palms. Then they are gone. A moment more, and the bird appears on a branch at the edge of the wood, silhouetted against a patch of sky with stars, straightening its tie or whatever saw-whet owls do under the circumstances, besides breathing
profanities against the captors it has so skillfully escaped.
Back in her kitchen, Camuso takes another bag down from its hook and attaches it to the scales, all trace of tiredness gone. It’s just as well. Banding nearly two thousand saw-whet owls has raised as many questions as it has answered. As she puts it, “The more we know, the more we know we know nothing.”