On an Owl Hunt

By: Erin Tate
By: Erin Tate

"We had no idea there were this many around," says Clair Mellinger, a professor of biology at Eastern Mennonite University, of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

This owl was always considered a rare visitor to Rockingham County, until Mellinger started asking some questions.

"Since we have very few records of Saw-Whets, I thought, 'I wonder if I can catch them? Do they come this far south?'

His hunch led to the banding of 122 owls last fall. Previously, there were only four records of this species in the area.

Mellinger's many late nights in the woods have brought about an important discovery.

"We're the southern most stop on their migration chart," he says.

Mellinger says his owl research is the most valuable work he has done in the twenty years he has studied birds.

"We are looking at eye color, and have these paint samples to compare to," he describes as he jots down some information on his owl chart.

Mellinger also measures their wingspan, beak length and feathers. And of course, he bands the owls with a loose anklet to monitor their migration.

"It's just like a little bracelet," he says, explaining that it does not hurt the birds.

Mellinger says the Saw-Whets are known for their unique clicks and calls.

"The person who named them thought their call sounded like the sharpening of a saw," he says.

They also pop their beaks to scare off predators. But with Mellinger, they're remarkably tame.

After the banding and all the measurements are taken, then Professor Mellinger lets them go. The Northern Saw-Whet returns to the wild. And to further his research, so does Mellinger.

This year, Mellinger says there haven't been as many owls around. But he also says there have been more visitors come to watch him work and catch a rare glimpse of the Valley's most mysterious bird.

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