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Christmas Bird Count: Listening For Owls


Each year the public is invited to count birds for the Christmas Bird Count. While some can be counted from the backyard, counting others requires a special outing.

I’m walking up Spring Canyon, east of Smithfield, in the dark. It’s freezing cold and I’m walking by the light of the moon. I’m not here just for an evening walk. Frank Howe, a professor in Utah State University's Wildland Resources Department and a liaison to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is trudging through the snow ahead of me, and we’re here to listen for owls.

“So, the owls that we're looking for are active around twilight. So around dusk and around dawn, usually about two hours on the dark side of twilight. They're what we call crepuscular. And so we have to be out here in the dark in order to find them. And what they're doing mostly this time of night is they're kind of waking up from roosting during the day, and trying to find something to eat. So we're looking in places where they're going to have mice and voles to eat occasionally, maybe some small birds.” Howe said.

This owl count is a special part of the annual Christmas Bird Count. However, because owls are often active at night, they can be hard to detect, and require special methods to confirm their presence.

“To try to find the owls, we use what's called the playback technique, which means we're using vocalizations that the owls make and then playing back to the owls to hear if they’ll respond.” Howe explained. “We start with the little owls, and what we're looking for tonight are northern pygmy owls, northern saw-whet owls and western screech owls, those are all small owls. And the big owl that we're looking for is the great horned owl. We start with the vocalizations of the small owls, end with vocalizations of the big owls, because the big owls will eat the small owls, so we don't want to play the big vocalizations first because it'll scare them away.”

We play some high-pitched owl calls in the dark.

“The pygmy owl has got a real solid cadence, whereas the saw-whet wanders around a little bit, goes a little faster, a little slower.” Howe said.

After we play an an owl sound, we hear a northern saw-whet owl returning our playback calls.

In total, we walked about five miles and heard three different owl species: the great horned owl, the northern saw-whet owl and the western screech owl. We even caught a glimpse of some of the owls, and a very sleepy robin. We very cold by the end, but it was well worth the freezing temperatures.

Owls can be found around Logan year-round, but Howe said this time of year is a great time for researchers to look for owls, because they’ll react to playback, but their efforts to find a mate won’t be disturbed.

“This time of year, that's kind of all they're doing is they're just foraging.” Howe said. “They're not out courting, so it's a little too early around Christmas for them actually be seeking each other out but they're still a little bit territorial. So you can get them to do their territorial calls back to you if you do the playback.”

Listening for owls is a fun and easy outdoor activity, if you’re willing to spend time out in the dark. However, if you plan to go owling, remember owls need their privacy too, and keeping your distance and staying quiet if you spot an owl will help keep them healthy and undisturbed.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.