It’s dusk, the second week of March 2018. The rumble of traffic from Highway 76 crawls through a thin line of trees and into the Hyatt family’s spacious backyard in suburban Clemson, South Carolina. A persistent, chilly breeze blows as the Hyatts and a few friends prepare to watch a cadre of biologists try to catch Winston.
Winston is a Barred Owl, and for the previous several evenings, he’s been receiving treats from Marion Clement. She’s conditioned Winston to associate her arrival, and the squeak of a dog toy, with a mouse, aka dinner. Tonight, the main course comes with a catch: the mouse will lure Winston into a very fine net, which he hasn’t seen before. Clement, and several of her interns from the Clemson Creative Inquiry Program, will carefully measure, weigh and inspect the bird, then they’ll fit him with a tiny backpack transmitter to track his movements.
Clement is a wildlife biology master’s student in Clemson University’s Department of Forestry & Environmental Conservation. She’s studying the lives of the city owl and the country owl, but mostly the city owl, like Winston and his mate Wilma. As urban areas sprawl, owls either adapt to the developing landscape or they move deeper into the woods. Clement wants to know if, and how, hip, urban-dwelling owls are behaving differently from their country cousins: Are they more likely to share territory when hunting for locally sourced, artisanal prey? What are they looking for in eco-friendly homes? Where do they stand on the man bun? And do they prefer coffee or chai.
She’s also trying to inform answers to a bigger question: how can people and wildlife occupy the same urban landscape more harmoniously? (Cue the Hillside Singers.) “Studying where owls are thriving in urbanized landscapes allows us to understand how certain types of development can promote a larger diversity of wildlife,” Clement says.
Kyle Barrett, an assistant professor and Clement’s faculty supervisor, has long studied how rapid changes in the environment due to urban development affect wildlife in streams and wetlands, but he had not studied the impact on forested areas. “Our work with the Barred Owl is our first approach at that.”
Having a hoot party
City life is relatively new for these majestic creatures, with their round heads, coal-black eyes, a cute bean of a beak that belies its formidability, and a signature call – “Who! Who cooks for you all?!” (Urban owls are apparently foodies). Historically, they are forest birds, and in most of North America they still are. But they’re beginning to urbanize across their natural range, which includes the eastern half of the U.S. and a swath across the south of Canada, with a small range extending from Seattle through Portland and into Northern California.
Clement had a difficult time finding birds in Clemson until a local resident, Patricia Layton, posted a plea for help on the neighborly app Nextdoor. “Soon,” Clement says, “we were getting reports daily from people who had owls in their yards and who were eager to be citizen scientists.” Clemson is cool that way.
The connection couldn’t have been more perfect, because Clement not only needed owls, she needed people, too.
The owl project was started and funded by the Margaret Lloyd SmartState Endowment. Its mission is to connect people with nature through research, teaching and service.
Professor Rob Baldwin, chair of the endowment, helped launch the project. “For years I’ve been thinking of a way to raise understanding of how small conservation lands like the Clemson Experimental Forest or Hardscramble in Camden could provide ecosystem resources to neighboring urban and suburban residents – the endowment has enabled this research with Marion and Dr. Barrett and I’m proud to support it.”
Owls are the perfect mascot for this mission, Clement says, because they’re sensitive to environmental degradation while being common enough in urban areas to study. And, people are fascinated by them.
Fifteen people soon replied to Layton’s initial post.
Judy Caldwell posted on the Nextdoor thread, “We sometimes have a hoot party at night around our house.” Daniel Donnan wrote, “I have a pair in my backyard. Why do they sound like monkeys?”
Elaine Richardson said her husband Roy watched a pair raise an owlet a few years back.
In short order, Clement met Winston and Wilma, Hiccup and Homer, PJ, Nervous Nelson and Nellie, owls that were living in the yards of folks like Seoghyun Kim, Chip Rouse, John Beckerle, the Hyatts, the Aurichs, and the Bickels.
Tanya Hyatt says she and her husband Peter, and their kids (Hannah, Lauren, Stone and Will), watched owls in their big backyard for years without knowing much about them. When Hyatt saw Layton’s post on Nextdoor, she thought the project would be a great learning experience for the kids (Winston is named for Stone; Wilma for Will). She responded to the thread right away.
“As I do this work with my homeowners, it’s evident to me how enriching it can be for people to have an important, charismatic megafauna in your backyard,” Clement says.
A bird in hand
On the cold night in the Hyatt’s yard, Clement is dressed like a spelunker in search of a cave: toboggan, gloves, several layers of jackets, jeans, hiking boots, and a headlamp – gotta have the headlamp. Probably a layer of thermal undergarments.
David Brinker, a noted ornithologist who leads an international Snowy Owl project called SNOWstorm, is in the backyard as well. Clement’s mentor and one of her former colleagues from the Maryland Department of Resources Management, Brinker has come to Clemson to train Clement to trap owls and deploy transmitters, small GPS units that record the location of the owl every hour. Clement also straps a U.S. Geological Survey band on the owl — an ID anklet with federal tracking info. It’s not chic, but it’s functional. Brinker walks Clement through the process and the team sets up the feeding platform and a very fine, soft net.
Winston is watching all the hullabaloo from a limb of a poplar tree, about 40 feet off the ground, about 40 yards away. When the crew is finished, he flies in for a closer look.
There’s his dinner, looking like it always has, but he doesn’t take the bait. He takes a perch and, as owls are wont to do, he watches with his saucer-sized, stereoscopic eyes – the best eyes in the bird business.
Many minutes pass by. Winston spreads his wings and leaps toward the platform, free falling a few feet, but he aborts his landing and flaps back to the limb, where he watches. Something’s different. So, he watches. And he waits.
On the Hyatts’ patio, the family, a few friends and neighbors, and the biologists wait anxiously – except Brinker; the veteran bird man is chill as the night air.
Clement squeaks the dog toy. Winston watches. Clement tries an owl call. Winston … watches. He spreads his wings again and swoops down, and, again, aborts the landing. It’s back up to the limb to … watch.
Finally, in the faintest of daylight, Winston decides his hunter-gatherer duties outweigh his concern for a different scene. He spreads, leaps, falls, swoops and lands in the net. Clement rushes to the bird and frees him. Now, the work begins. She’ll spend the next hour, as darkness falls and cold settles in, training her headlamp on Winston as she measures his head, wing span and weight.
In their wing feathers, Barred Owls carry a chemical compound called porphyrin. It results from a mix of amino acids and shows up in other birds, like Galliformes (chickens, turkeys, game birds like pheasants) and turacos (very colorful birds in southern Africa), according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
With Winston’s wing spread wide, Clement shines a black light and Winston’s feathers emit various shades of pink. Newer feathers have more porphyrin and, therefore, have denser color. Clement looks at each feather to determine how pink it is, which helps gauge the bird’s age. She’ll also study his corticosterone levels and compare them with the forest owls’ to see if city life is more stressful than living in the woods.
Winston seems nonplussed. He flaps now and then, but mostly he sits statue still, watching, while Clement and her students work. Brinker gently offers suggestions. Their last chore is to fit the bird with a tiny backpack transmitter. With the transmitter, Clement tracks the owl’s flight, which has included stops in the yard of Clemson’s football coach Dabo Swinney.
As of May, Clement tracked two birds as they made their nightly dinner circuits, bringing food back to their nest-sitting mate. What she found was interesting: some birds looked for dinner along conventional flight paths – streams and forests. Others preferred to hang out in backyards.
She’ll spend the summer preparing for the fall and spring, when she hopes to track 20 or more owls. She’ll also perfect Robbie the Robot Owl, a mechanized taxidermied owl used to lure forest owls. Robbie was built with the help of Brandon Zalinsky, a Clemson engineering student, and Melissa Fuentes, curator and taxidermist at Clemson’s Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History.
Maybe the most important finding, however, isn’t as quantifiable as birds’ routes. Maybe it’s the experience shared by people and what Clement calls the charismatic megafauna living around them.
“I now feel a beautiful connection with these predators that live in our backyard,” Hyatt says. “We know them like you know a good friend.”
And, that’s really the point of the research: understanding how we can promote non-human critters in urban spaces so humans can develop habitats that are more conducive to nature. As Clement says, if people can look at their yards as healthy habitats instead of lawns to be mowed, leaves to be raked and shrubs to be trimmed, everyone will benefit.
“If we bring that philosophy into development strategies, not only can we can increase the health of our urban wildlife, we can increase the health and happiness of people as well.” — Clinton Colmenares, Clemson University Relations
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