Cute as an owl can be Alluring quality: Though they don't like to attribute human qualities to animals, most birders acknowledge there's something charismatic about the tiny saw-whet owl.

November 24, 1995|By Dail Willis TC | Dail Willis TC,SUN STAFF

A tiny owl called the Northern saw-whet is migrating south in record numbers this year, slipping through Maryland's chilly nights, witnessed only by a handful of sleep-deprived scientists and bird-lovers.

What they are learning is a little more about the migratory patterns of a northern bird, bits and pieces of the bird-life mosaic, the habitats that support it -- and us.

In Garrett County to the west, on the Delmarva Peninsula to the east, even north to Cape May, N.J., the robin-sized raptor is showing up in numbers as great as 10 times last year's. And this has spawned a kind of secondary migration: biologists, bird-watchers and students getting up in the middle of the night to weigh, measure and band the birds before releasing them back to the night.

"These things are infiltrating -- if a handful of us weren't checking, we wouldn't know they were here," said Dave Brinker, a central regional ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources' Natural Heritage Program.

Mr. Brinker uses his spare time to study saw-whets. He has been banding them for a decade. Banding -- giving captured birds a tiny ankle cuff that carries an identifying number -- is a way for scientists to track birds. The banding stations use a tape of an owl's mating call to lure them into nets. "What is intriguing is that it appears for the first time since 1976, somebody opened the door in the arctic and everything piled through," said Rick Blom, a Bel Air nature writer, bird field guide author and former state coordinator for the Breeding Bird Atlas. "The early indications from all the reports north of us is everything is moving."

Bird-watchers along the Atlantic Coast report early sightings of such birds as black-capped chickadees, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, northern shrikes and red crossbills. All of these birds, like the saw-whet, migrate annually from central Canada, although their migratory patterns and numbers can vary annually.

Bird with charisma

But no bird -- except maybe a hawk -- seems to have the charisma that the saw-whets do. People with full-time jobs get up in the middle of the night to band. At Cape May, the banding station is staffed by a woman who works in Wyoming but comes east every year for vacation to band owls. Mr. Brinker uses his vacation and Thanksgiving holiday to band, bringing his wife, Jan, and 5-year-old son, Gavin, to a banding station on Assateague Island.

The little owl with the funny name (it may come from a French attempt at onomatopoeia, although no one is sure) has tremendous appeal and can make even the most hardened scientist drift toward anthropomorphism, a big no-no in biology.

"They do carry a mystique," said Mr. Blom. "A saw-whet is this tiny, mysterious thing -- and it's cute." He added quickly, "I loathe that word, 'cute.' "

But it crops up again and again when the people who trudge down dark, log-strewn paths on cold nights in autumn talk about the Northern saw-whet. And seeing one validates what they all say: The saw-whet is cute.

'Just adorable'

In Mr. Brinker's nets this week, several owls hung upside down, snared by filament so fine that a careless human could walk into it. The owls' round yellow eyes watched unblinkingly as Mr. Brinker carefully freed wings and talons from the netting, then put the saw-whets into mesh bags for transport back to the house for weighing and measuring.

Once in the bags, they hopped around a little, resembling miniature Casper the Friendly Ghosts when they and the bags moved around on the path. But the only other sign of displeasure was a tiny castanet-like sound as they snapped their beaks.

The owls are not tame, but they have learned to survive by sitting very still when they feel threatened. So a human can get very close to one, and it just sits there, looking back. Hold one in your hand and turn it away from your face, and you get another owl trait: their heads swivel about 300 degrees, quick and soundless. It helps them catch mice, but it's also endearing.

"It's just this thing that sucks you over there every night," says Mike Wilson, a bander at Cape Charles. "There is an attraction. They are just adorable. They have that cute quality; they're very alert to what you're doing."

Indeed, they have become "poster children for the environment," as one biologist describes them. They appeared on last year's ads for the environmental tax check-off in Maryland; they are on the wildlife auto tags sold in Pennsylvania; and West Virginia has used them for environmental advertising, too.

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