Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Great Owl Cage Project

Roger Meyer giving directions to bulldozer operator Tim Nelson.

For two and a half years I've been planning The Great Owl Cage project. The goal is to breed a pair of non-releasable Great Horned Owls and observe them using remote cameras and microphones to learn more about their vocalizations. I've been studying Great Horned Owl vocalizations since 2004 using Alice and my wild neighbor owls as a base along with a few nest observations. But there are some things that are darn near impossible to record in wild owls.

I want to know what kind of behavior (and associated vocalizations) happen in the nest selection process. Who picks the nest? I want to record vocalizations during copulation. I want to record Mom talking to her eggs. I want to record the first sounds an owlet makes while still in an egg. I want to find out how long it takes a young owl to develop its normal territorial hoot and how much practicing is involved. Do Mom and Dad's territorial hoots stay the same over the years? Do the offspring have hoot characteristics inherited from their parents? Much of this can best be learned with captive birds.

So in 2007 I got permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to breed a pair of non-releasable owls. Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, WI came up with the perfect owls for me not long after--a male and a female with eye injuries that prevented their release, but certainly wouldn't prevent them from breeding normally. And even better...the two owls seemed to LIKE each other and get along well. (You can't just plunk two birds in a cage and expect them to breed. They might...but then again they might not like each other!)

The main holdup for the project was finding someone to draw up plans for the cages and come up with a materials list. Oh, and they had to do it as a volunteer.

The first person I lined up got too busy, then his health took a downturn. The next person didn't pan out either. And then finally, after two years, I found the man for the job right under my nose: Roger Meyer.

I knew of Roger's reputation. He's retired and involved in all kinds of volunteer projects from Habitat for Humanity to the maple syrup project at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church to the Houston Community Garden and more. And Roger isn't just "a volunteer" in these projects. He's a mover and a of the main people making things happen. And not just happen...happen at lightening speed. And guess what?? He loves owls, and is a retired builder. Too perfect.

So I met several times with Roger to discuss cage requirements and he drafted plans. Once the material list was done we were off tracking down donations. The Houston Nature Center runs heavily on donations, so I was quite used to this. Roger was no stranger to the game either with all the projects he's been involved in.

To make a long story short, the building market is slow, so businesses didn't have big profits from which to donate. But we were able to line up nearly everything at cost and got some items donated. Plus people were generous with their cash donations. (See the donor and volunteer list on the right...and we're not done yet!)

The last thing I need to track down is security cameras and microphones. I've put in a few calls and e-mails to security companies and manufacturers, but nothing yet. Key word is YET. In case you've got connections, I'm looking for day/night cams with audio and infrared illuminators in outdoor housing that can be streamed onto the internet. Kind of high end stuff! But it's very important, as I want the video to stream online so anyone can watch it anywhere in the world and help make observations.