Owl Banding at Fernald Preserve

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I’ve been interested in birds and bird watching since I was 12 years old. It all started with a school academic team I was on called Science Olympiad. Science Olympiad changed my life in many ways and I could wax and wane about its awesomeness for multiple blog posts (which I may do), but let’s get back to birds.

For the first year I was in Science Olympiad, I exclusively studied birds. I was an alternate on the team and was allowed to participate in trial events only. Feathered Frenzy (back then all the names of the events were delightfully cheesy) was one of the trial events and I spent all my time not devoted to my schoolwork studying birds. I even tried to study in my sleep by listening to bird call CDs in bed. I was, and still am, very competitive and was determined to excel in this study competition. Plus, I realized birds are amazing creatures! For the event, students were quizzed on local bird identification (visually and by sound), bird biology and natural history. We had an official list of birds we could be tested on which grew as we went from local competitions to regional events and eventually to state and nationals. Not to get too braggy, but I was pretty good (and our team was amazing). My sister, who is two years my junior, and I placed sixth in the national competition. At that point I had been studying birds for three years. I was obsessed.

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Even when Science Olympiad replaced Feathered Frenzy with Treemendous (a study event about trees which I also came to love and obsess over), to prevent mega-nerds like myself from natural history world domination, I still studied birds.

My mom and I took an Intro to Ornithology class at Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm (the best Audubon Center ever) two years in a row. We went on guided birding trips with our naturalist and bird guide, Tom Hissong. We spent Mother’s Day weekend at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and Crane Creek State Park several years in a row because that Saturday is International Migratory Day. We met Kenn Kaufman and he autographed my copy of his field guide (we’re Facebook friends now but it’s no big deal 😉 ). For many, many years birdwatching was everything for me.

It was my thing. A hike in the woods was not a hike in the woods, it was a bird walk. My dad and sister got used to leaving my mom and me on the hiking trail because we were birdwatching and they were bored. Unfortunately, that was years ago. I still love birds and find them fascinating (they’re my favorite animal after cats, of course), but I don’t do much birdwatching anymore – at least not actively.

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That’s why getting the opportunity to see live owl banding at Fernald Preserve was so special and exciting for me. For one thing, of all the birds I think it’s fair to say owls are the cutest and most badass of the bird family (a lethal birdy combo). Look at those gigantic eyes and fluffy tufts of feathers! They’re nocturnal predators whose specialized wing feathers are serrated, making them as silent as they are deadly to small prey animals.

The two owls that we learned about at the owl banding program were the Northern Saw-whet Owl and the Eastern Screech-Owl. Both species are small (about 6 to 9 inches in height) and feed on small mammals like mice and voles. Before heading out into the night, we looked at images of both owls and listened to their most common vocalizations.

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The owl banding event was held at dark, when the owls would be active. We took a short hike with our guide, Penny, stopping along the way to learn more about the preserve, its history as a uranium enrichment site and the natural history of the area. Our path was illuminated only by the moon, stars and the occasional flashlight.

When we reached the tent set up by the Hummer Bird Banding Research Collaborative (HBBC) we met Tim Tolford, the founder of the organization and Becky Crow, Curator of Wildlife at Brukner Nature Center. HBBC was founded in 2007 to study birds and bird migration through banding. So far the organization has banded over 10,000 individual birds, representing 136 species. HBBC primarily focuses on hummingbirds, spring and fall migration and Saw-whet Owls.

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While Tim gave us an introduction to HBBC, one of his volunteers went to check the nets used to safely capture the owls for banding. There were no new birds. Lucky for us, this event at Fernald was so popular that additional sessions were added. Tim was able to give us a presentation on owl banding using an Eastern Screech Owl that was caught earlier that evening for an earlier program.

Tim showed us the tools that bird banders use. Large, soft mist nets, which are stretched between trees. A recording of a Saw-whet Owl vocalization is played in the area near the nets. It attracts owls in the area, who fly into the net and gently tumble into a small pocket at the bottom. The owls are not harmed by the net. After the owls have been caught, information about their biology (weight, sex, age, wing measurements) are recorded and each bird is fitted with a small, lightweight aluminum band. A UV light can be used to age owl wings, porphyrin, an organic compound in the owls’ wings cause new feathers to glow bright pink. Each band has a unique number that is now tied to that individual bird. If this particular bird is caught again, the bird bander will be able to get the information that was recorded the first time the owl was captured, and add more data to the record.

Bird banding captures invaluable information about bird migration, lifespans, ecology and even the spread of disease like Lyme disease and the West Nile virus.

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I can’t wait to attend the next event at Fernald!

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ohio-120x120Fernald Preserve

Address: 7400 Willey Road Harrison, Ohio 45030

Phone Number: 513-648-6000

Hours: Fernald Preserve is open daily from 7am to dusk. The Visitors Center is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm.

HBRC Hummer/Bird Banding Research Collaborative

Social Media: Facebook

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