Monday, August 04, 2008

The Next Phase of My Owl Research

I've been working on a vocal study of the Great Horned Owl since 2004. It will be a lifelong study (love affair with owls?) since I'm looking at documenting the complete vocal repertoire of the species, vocal development, identifying individuals by their territorial hoots, comparing the hoots of offspring to their parents, regional and sex variation in territorial hooting, and I'm sure I'll get off on some other tangents as opportunities present themselves.

I'm now planning to move ahead with the next phase of my Great Horned Owl vocal study: having a cages built to house an unreleasable pair of owls for breeding purposes.

As many of you know, this is an idea I got started on last fall. But then there was the flood, the World Owl Conference, the International Festival of Owls, Bush Leadership Fellowship interviews and planning, my divorce (we parted on peaceful terms, and no, Alice wasn't the problem), a budding new romance, and issues with the well and septic system. So those are my excuses for just FINALLY getting back to this wonderful project. Feels good to be back at it!

I'm the first to admit that I don't know diddly squat about building anything. But I hope to learn a thing or two in this process. Thankfully I know people who know how to build things, though! My best friend Julie's husband, Tat, has signed on to the project as chief cage builder extraordinaire.

I drew up the plans for the cages last fall from recommendations given by Kay McKeever, the Owl Lady of Canada and head honcho of The Owl Foundation ( Probably no one in the world knows more about breeding cage design for permanently injured owls than Kay. (She spoke at the Festival of Owls in 2004.) Tat has some questions I need to clarify with Kay, and then he'll work up a list of materials needed, potential deals (he's good at finding deals!), and costs. The goal is to get everything built this fall so the owls can be in place by winter with hopes of them breeding by spring. Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, WI (where Alice came from, already has a suitable pair of owls ready and waiting. I just need cages for them!

When this project started rolling last fall, donations started to come in. I've already received $2,200 so far, which will likely cover the materials for the breeding cage. Since these cages will be ideal cages and not just bare-bones-scrape-by-minimum-standards cages (the breeding owls will spend their entire lives in their cage), they will be spacious and allow the owls choices, making it more likely they'll breed. I'm expecting it will require at least $3,000 more to fund the release training cage and remote audio and video equipment. (OK, so it could cost more than that too, but I know I'll need at least a few thousand more to make this all happen.)

Ideally, the cameras in the cages will be infrared (so you can see the owls at night), and color during the daytime. There will also be microphones (exceedingly important for a vocal study!!) And I'd like to have the video and audio streaming online so anyone can log on and observe the owls. This is important because the more people who observe the owls, the more that can be learned.

There's a Little Owl webcam in Holland ( that has had great success using viewers to help with observations. Those die-hards who watch the cam at all hours of the day and night were given some training about which observations to record, prey identification, and more. Then they could post their observations. The researchers reviewed the posted observations, and found them to be quite accurate and useful. They even had a little party for the heavy duty observers at the end of nesting season.

I'd like to follow the Dutch example, partly to get more observations (since I can't watch things 24 hours a day myself ) and because it's great to get people involved and excited about research--you don't need a PhD to do this stuff! So, that's my goal!

I already received the Hall/Mayfield Award from the Wilson Ornithological Society to purchase night vision for wild nest observations a few years ago for my vocal study. I was also planning to personally put in a couple thousand dollars I had saved up for this project, but I had to kiss that money goodbye in the divorce settlement so I could keep the house and property. So much for that!

This project is being supported through the Owl Research Institute in Montana (, so donations for my research can be made to that organization and are tax-deductible. I'm also looking for skilled volunteer builders to help with cage construction, and hopefully I have some technologically savvy folks willing to help with the audio and video setup. Key supporters will be acknowledged in my published research.

If you're interested in helping out with this research in any way, please let me know. You can e-mail me at The more the merrier!

I still find it strange to think that no one has ever done a vocal study on such a common species as the Great Horned Owl, and laugh when I realize I'm probably the world authority on their vocalizations, even though there's so much I don't know!!

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