How do you catch an owl? It was the question that brought us to to Rocky Mountain National Park late one afternoon. Turns out it’s not that complicated, and that it mostly takes patience. Oh, and a state or federal permit.
Scott Rashid is THE go to person in Colorado. Not just because he would be our instructor for the 4 hour session that evening, but because he is the ONLY person licensed to band owls in this state. Fortunately he shares his love of owls with anybody willing to learn, and when he speaks, his enthusiasm is evident in the speed with which the words come out of his mouth, sometimes requiring a moment for our brains to catch up.
As the sky darkened, we listened to the recording of a Boreal Owl mating cry, loudly projected from 2 speakers into the forest outside our cozy classroom. Surrounding the speakers were 3 mist-nets, each striped with floppy net sections that could entangle anything coming into contact with it, including rings, velcro, a surprised bear. Or a confused owl, knowing that mating season is over, and yet figuring it prudent to investigate.
The wind was howling. Scott explained that it would be therefore unlikely that we would capture anything. We waited a half hour before checking the nets, happy not to be outside on this chilly October night. No owl.
Scott talked about the 19 species of owls found in North America, of the 10 species found in Colorado, and about little tiny owls that I never knew existed, which immediately triggered my curiosity. Did you know that there are some owls just 6 1/2″ long from head to tail? That would be the Northern Pygmy-Owl. Little owls tend to nest in tree cavities previously created by other birds.
The two we were hoping to band that night were the Boreal, and the Northern Saw-whet Owls, two species of a single genus. The Saw-whet Owls are not all that much larger, 6 1/2 to 8″ long, with the Boreal Owls about 10″ long. The serenade continued in the darkness. After 15 minutes, again we all donned jackets and went into the woods to check the nets. Still no owls.
An accomplished artist, Scott creates watercolors of his beloved owls as well as of other birds using a unique style showing three different poses per painting. His works are beautiful as well as informative. He is also an author, having compiled a compendium of owl facts and stories, in addition to some of his watercolors, into the volume he autographed for us. Look for his book Small Mountain Owls.
We were starting to believe there would be no owl captured that night, but every 15 minutes, faithfully, at least one or two went to check the nets, until … surprise! What was in the little black cloth bag, jiggling it so vigorously?
Not expecting success on this windy night, we were not prepared for our guest, and now rushed to plug in the scale and enlist someone to neatly record the little Boreal Owl’s curriculum vitae. Bravely, Scott reached into the bag to grab the feet, and out came a bright yellow eyed small bundle of feathers that made eye contact with each of its captors, presumably finding us non-threatening, before finding a new bracelet being attached to its leg. The owl was quickly weighed, its wing length measured, as camera flashes recorded this perplexing misadventure.
Outside we all went for the dramatic release, whereupon Miss Owl (yes, it turned out to likely be female) flew up, instead of out, and perched in the rafters, safely out of reach, where it was her turn to perform observations. There we were, owl and humans, studying one another.
The recording in the forest was switched to a Saw-whet Owl call, and I really hoped we catch one, as they are as cute as an owl could be, round balls of feathers with yellow eyes, and fuzzy white faces with brown radiating outward. But as the night progressed, we saw it would not be. We waved farewell to Miss Owl, still in the rafters sheltered from the wind, as the evening came to an end.
And that is how you catch an owl!
If you would like more information about small owls, sign up for a class with Scott through the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. Or poke around at the following online resources: