Saw What? The Saw-whets Are Back

The northern saw-whet owls are back.

For the second consecutive fall, Mitchell Pruitt, an Honors College student, and Kimberly Smith, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, have captured and banded northern saw-whet owls at the Ozark Natural Science Center in Madison County, continuing their research on migratory patterns of these elusive, tiny owls.

Pruitt and Smith captured and documented just two adult females in 2014. This fall they captured, banded and released 22 northern saw-whets, which have been rarely seen in Arkansas since the mid-1950s. In one night they captured five of the pint-sized owls, which can fit in the palm of a hand. In another, they captured four. One of the last owls they captured was their first male, which was interesting because it was thought that male northern saw-whets don’t travel this far south in the winter.

Mitchell Pruitt attached a band to a northern saw-whet captured at the Ozark Natural Science Center | Misty Gay

Mitchell Pruitt attaches a band to a northern saw-whet captured at the Ozark Natural Science Center | Courtesy Misty Gay

“This research is very invigorating and is an inspiring way to be involved in ornithology and bird conservation,” Pruitt said. “Plus, the saw-whet owl is clearly the cutest owl in the world.”

Indeed, the main image above of a northern saw-whet perched on a tree branch was taken at the Ozark Natural Science Center by nature photographer Michael Linz.

The owl, from northern forests, has been discovered to be migratory in fall throughout most of North America. Little work has been done in the South – the species was known only from 13 records in Arkansas prior to the U of A research and was thought to be a rare fall/winter visitor to the state.

“To capture the owl, we set up four 12-meter mist nets in a line and have a caller in the center of the arrangement broadcasting different vocalizations of the species,” said Pruitt, a senior majoring in environmental, soil, and environmental sciences. “Birds in the area or migrating birds will become curious and stop to check it out, hopefully getting caught in the process. Each saw-whet is banded, weighed, measured, aged, sexed, and released.

“In doing this research, we hope to get an idea for how many migrate through our area and when, as well as simply show that they are, in fact, migrating through,” Pruitt said. “Despite multiple research stations working with the species in Canada and the northern United States, the owl’s movements remain largely a mystery, which is why our research in Arkansas is so important. Being a widespread migrant could make them vulnerable during many parts of the year in many different places. Filling in the blank pages of the northern saw-whet owl’s book could help them in the future in regards to their conservation and management.”

In 2011, Pruitt was ranked No. 4 on a list of most birds seen in Arkansas, when he documented sighting of 311 avian species. The ranking was part of the “Big Year,” a competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of species or birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.

Pruitt and others involved with the effort keep the state’s birders abreast of their progress through the Birds of Arkansas Discussion List, a listserv hosted by the U of A with more than 600 subscribers.

Pruitt poses with a northern saw-whet | Joe Neal

Mitchell Pruitt poses with a northern saw-whet perched on his hand | Courtesy Joe Neal

On Oct. 28, the group captured three northern saw-whets.

“We got set up a little late due to a testy net, had two barred owls calling near our site, and heard the season’s first white-fronted geese flying south,” Pruitt wrote. “Joe [Neal] joked, ‘I bet the saw-whets are riding in on their backs!’ Let’s just say they must have been. On our first net check at 10 p.m., we had one bird in a net! Joe headed to the car to take the banding box inside and FLUSHED another into the net! A two-fer. … Make that THREE saw-whets captured and banded…another adult female found on the final net run a little after midnight. All in a night’s work.”

Neal, a retired wildlife biologist and co-author of Arkansas Birds: Their Distribution and Abundance, is impressed with Pruitt’s ability to retrieve the owls from the mist nets.

In a Nov. 7 post to the listserv, Neal wrote, “You have to grasp the bird firmly but delicately so that it doesn’t get injured, simultaneously working net around wings, claws and head, with no slip-ups. Remaining cool and focused, rather than panicked or hurried, is the key. Mitchell demonstrates this quality as does his honors adviser, Dr. Kimberly G. Smith. A new moniker for our intrepid saw-whet honors student: Cool Hand Mitchell.”

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