A Night with Owl Researchers


A volunteer logs data collected from a mist-netted owl. Photo: Maci MacPherson

On a clear night in early October 2023, the cold, crisp air warned me that the first snowfall was near. Along the shores of Flathead Lake in Montana, at the University of Montana Flathead Biological Station, I was able to participate in a special guest night with the Owl Research Institute. ORI has been studying Northern Saw-whet Owls for over 30 years and recently moved its study site to the Biological Station. The habitat is filled with tall ponderosa pines, Engelmann spruce trees, and large shrubs that support a variety of owl and other wildlife species.

I and about 25 other interested birders gathered to learn about ORI’s research, specifically about both the Saw-whet Owls that remain year-round and those that migrate along Flathead Lake. ORI staff and volunteers shared their knowledge with us as twilight shifted to darkness. Although there is no guarantee of mist-netting owls, the session offered amazing night sky viewing and conversation about owl conservation.

The researchers mentioned that they believe the owls will travel up to several hundred miles to slightly warmer climates in western Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon. One goal of the project is to learn more about where they migrate to, or if they stay in the western Montana area. While Saw-whet Owls are the main focus of this research project, a Western Screech-Owl was found in the mist net on another study night.

A Northern Saw-whet Owl in hand at the Flathead Biological Station. Photo: Maci MacPherson

Just after 9 p.m., on the third check of the mist net, the biologists brought back the first two Saw-whet Owls! The researchers banded the owls, measured their wingspans, weighed each owl, documented the feather patterns on their faces, and worked to age the owls. I was particularly interested in how the owls are aged.

According to the ORI staff, porphyrin, an organic compound, is found in the new, young feathers of a Saw-whet Owl. After stretching out their wings, the staff shined a UV light on the feathers, which causes the feathers to glow pink. The brighter the pink, the younger the owl. To protect each owl’s eyes, its head was covered with a sock. We learned that many of the owls netted that night were first-year birds showing a bright pink glow in their feathers.

Overall, we watched six Saw-whet Owls banded on our night at the research station. We were even treated to a larger owl, perhaps a Barred Owl, swooping over the group as twilight turned to night. We learned that Barred Owls are one of the top predators if the much smaller Saw-whet Owls. Luckily, the larger owl did not hang around.

ORI conducts long-term research on owls, their prey species, and their relationship to their habitat and uses the data to help maintain viable populations. Additionally, ORI collaborates on strategic projects; educates the public about owls; and provides research data to land management agencies and conservation partners. More information about the Owl Research Institute and its educational opportunities can be found on the ORI website.

Are you a student? Beth Mendelsohn, research biologist with ORI, will give a virtual presentation about the institute’s research and about career pathways for students on Friday, February 23, at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time. To sign up for the presentation, please Register Here

For any questions about registration, please contact Maci MacPherson.

—Maci MacPherson, WFO Administrator

Leave a Reply