I’m speeding down a dark Vermont road, hurtling through a star-studded October night on an urgent quest: to witness the banding of one of the world’s smallest owls, the northern saw-whet. Five bird-crazed students are stuffed in my car, one young woman in the hatchback. They shout out species to a birdcall CD. A shy freshman watches, eyes as big as a young owl. All but one are students enrolled in “Birding to Change the World,” a class I teach at the University of Vermont.
The saw-whet, one of the most common owls in the northern U.S., is also one of the most mysterious. Robin-size, it lives in woods all around us, yet we rarely see it. With feathers the shades of tree bark, it blends into a trunk like a woody knot.
Scientists still barely understand the basics about these owls—their migration, how many there are (David Brinker of Project Owlnet estimates the global population at 2 to 5 million based on banding records), or even how long they live (the oldest captive bird lived to sixteen). But we do know some weird, random stuff. A graduate student in Appalachia watched an owl defrost prey stored on branches— mostly mice, but also bats, squirrels, and birds—by sitting on top of its frozen dinner like a feathered microwave. An Ohio fishing boat captain in 1903 watched saw-whets land on a steamship. And in his famous book The Birds of America, John James Audubon wrote: “This species evinces a strong and curious propensity to visit the interior of our cities . . . whilst at Cincinnati, I had one brought to me which had been taken from the edge of a cradle, in which a child lay asleep, to the no small astonishment of the mother.”
My students and I are arriving at a banding station during peak fall migration. The temperature is in the mid-fifties. The sky is clear. And the wind is blowing eight miles from the northwest, ideal for owls flying south at night, and for owl banders, bundled up all over the Northeast, hiding near spiderweb nets forty feet long.
We turn off the main road, tires crunching on gravel. Handmade signs marked owls point into the dark with a single arrow. We follow them to a mucky field where we wait for the banders. An hour south of Burlington, it is so dark we can see the Milky Way. “Hey! There’s a shooting star,” a student yells. Then another, and another. We’ve not only hit peak owl migration, but also the peak of the Orionid meteor shower, the dregs of Halley’s comet. My students lie on their backs on wet grass, side-by-side in a giggling row, passing my binoculars back and forth. They scan the moonless sky, searching for both tiny owls and blazing meteors above us.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife and the local Audubon chapter have set up a card table in front of an old red barn. Floodlights illuminate it; the rest of the clearing is shadowy. A crowd of adults stand in front, small children darting between their legs. Nearby, wizened birders sit around a fire, roasting marshmallows and swapping bird stories.
I expect to find a grizzled bird bander behind the table, but instead, a strawberry-haired girl of thirteen holds court—Ryley, the daughter of the man in charge. She explains the procedure. “Owl extractors” check the two sets of nets every twenty minutes so the birds don’t get too stressed. The eerie, high monotonous toots coming from the bushes are lures, she says, hidden tape recorders playing owl calls.
A disembodied voice suddenly crackles from Ryley’s walkie-talkie. The crowd hushes.
“They’ve got an owl, and they’re bringing it down,” she says. We surge toward the table. “Here they come,” someone shouts.
Four headlamps bob up and down as the owl extractors approach with their tiny captive. Ryley gently grabs the owl by its feathered ankles. Then she holds the bird in front of her chest and raises it slowly, like a trophy, to face the crowd. A small owl stares at us, head slowly swiveling, golden irises glowing. She thinks the owl is female because females are larger than males. Eight inches of feather and fury, she is a dark copper the shade of falling leaves. Behold the Queen of Camouflage.
Ryley gets to work. She measures wing length, checks general health by feeling for fat deposits, and weighs the owl to confirm sex. Feathers help estimate age; young owls only have new feathers. She places the owl headfirst into a cutoff orange juice can for weighing, whispering “this will calm her down.” Then she plunks the can down on the scale, feathered feet wriggling out of the top. Then she pulls the owl out and raises her to face the audience. The owl clicks and clacks its black beak.
My students hover near the table, drinking in the bird. They glance at me every few minutes. We do not speak. We stare deep into her golden, furious eyes. She stares back. We have seen our first saw-whet.
Ryley finishes, placing a lightweight aluminum band with a nine-digit number around a feathered ankle. If this owl is ever found again, her number will help biologists track her migration route.
She asks who would like to release the saw-whet, as she parts the crowd, brandishing the owl in front of her like a feathered shield. Everyone backs up. Someone sets down a low stool. She asks my students to kneel around the stool and extend one hand, palm up, fingertips toward the center. She tips the owl on her back, laying her on the fleshy bed of my students’ hands. Be still, she says. The saw-whet lies on her back, talons curled, for an impossible twenty, thirty seconds. Then suddenly she realizes she is free, sits up, and rises straight in the air over the students, wings whooshing. The crowd roars. The owl flies to a nearby tree, then disappears with the Orionids into the night. O