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Researchers tracking tiny owls in Utah to protect the species

Posted at 5:38 PM, Jul 11, 2023

HUNTSVILLE, Utah — A special population of owls in Utah is being studied in mountain regions across the state. Experts say this is a unique year to track patterns of the flammulated owls.

Markus Mika is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, but he spends a couple of months in Utah in the summer. He visited through a grad school project, and now brings more grad students to study these owls. Mika has been passionate about owls for over two decades.

“The first time I held an owl, it’s kind of life-changing," he said.

Flammulated owls are a smaller species that get their name from what look like racing stripes on their shoulder feathers.

“It’s a very charismatic bird," Mika said.

Mika studies four sites of flammulated owl nesting sites across Utah. FOX 13 News got a look at the site near Snowbasin.

He studies these birds because he believes that they are a good model species.

“Helps us understand how the system interacts and works amongst the various drivers: resources, climate, the weather, all of that,” said Mika.

He and his team monitor nine nests in the Snowbasin area — eight are in nest boxes. Mika climbed up an aspen tree to check on young owls in the nest.

“It’s just the young, but still four young which is great," he said.

Experts say owl nests usually only have one or two babies per year, but the nest Mika checked on Tuesday was successful because it had four of these little ones. Now even if only three of them make it, that’s still a win for this team. But Mika adds that any nest with at least one live young one is still a success.

The researchers carefully weigh each young owl, measure their wings, and tag them with a band to track their progress.

“There’s something just deeply moving when I watch them behave,” said Mika.

The team also installs or holds up trail cameras to look at the birds. Mika said it helps them see the birds, but also understand how long the mom stays with her young ones before joining the dad to bring food to feed the babies.

According to Mika, this is the first year he hasn’t seen a single nest he monitors in any of the four locations be abandoned by these owls.

“We’ll always have to wait until we see how many young make it through to fledging," he said. "That is a better indication to see how good the year is, but 24 nests and us being overworked is a good problem to have.”

Mike said avian flu was a concern for them last year.

“We wanted to be careful. We wore masks, made sure our hands were wiped down with alcohol beforehand," he said.

But flammulated owls are more solitary birds that don’t usually come into contact with wild waterfowl carrying the virus, so their chances of falling sick and dying and much lower.

“They also feed on insects, so insects will not be a vector for avian flu," Mika said.

Ultimately the goal is to learn more about these species, so they can be protected.

“They are a successful species, but were just concerned in the long term given future predictions," Mika said.