Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bird in Hand

A couple of years ago I went to see northern saw-whet owls being banded. I went twice again this November. It is still just as cool.

First we went back to the site I visited in central Pennsylvania two years ago, run under the auspices of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, and we were not disappointed.

The owls are weighed and measured, with running commentary by the bander, explaining what is going on and why.

The owls, for the most part, are quite docile. Except for the occasional snapping of their beak, they remain calm in the bander's hand.

After the science is done, it's time for portraits. And "adoptions". Alas, you don't get to keep the bird.

You don't even get to hold it. The bander holds it for your adoption portrait, while you hold the band number that identifies "your" bird (and sometimes more than one person adopts the same owl - what a scam!). At this banding site the weighing and measuring happens indoors. Previously the adopter was allowed to hold the bird, but after one got away and flew around in the building in a panic that practice was ended. So now only the banders handle the birds. Once outside to release the birds you can hold it on your arm, as the owl reorients itself to the dark of night. Some sit on one's arm only briefly, others for five or more minutes. And then they're gone into the night.

The second site was a nature preserve outside of Philadelphia, Rushton Farm, which we visited six days later. At the Ned Smith site, the property is such that the visitors are not allowed to walk out to the nets, the terrain is just to rocky to have people walking around in the dark. The farm is much easier to get around, with easy to walk trails, and we were able to see the process from capture to release.

How embarrassing it must be to get caught and then have all these people watching. But again the birds were very calm.

We were able to watch, but only the trained banders could handle the owls in the nets. Once untangled the owls are put in bags for transport to the banding station.

The banding station was in an open air structure, so we were, under supervision, allowed to hold the owls for release. The protocol was the same, hold the bird for five minutes in the dark to allow it's vision to adapt, and then place the bird on your arm and wait for it to fly away.

The owls are quite tiny, and it somewhat magical to hold them, however briefly. This small wild animal, so calm and trusting. I wonder what it thinks of the whole experience. What memories does it have of these strange giants who poke and prod it and then send it on its way?

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