Science questions: Give a hoot about owls

Do screech owls screech, or barn owls sleep in barns? Let’s give a hoot about owls and think about this scientifically by asking questions and discovering answers.

The eastern screech owl that visited my yard this winter.

The eastern screech owl that visited my yard this winter.

Do screech owls really screech? Do all barn owls sleep in barns? Why do owls sleep during the day? How many different kinds of owls are there in Michigan? These are a few questions youth or even some adults may ask. Let’s give a hoot about owls and think about this scientifically by asking questions and discovering answers.

The W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary recently had an exciting opportunity for individuals to learn about Project Snowstorm, the snowy owl monitoring project. Experts from the Kalamazoo River Valley Bird Observatory, a program of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, brought their expertise to the Sanctuary. Their educational presentation included research and data collected through banding snowy owls. In the winter of 2013-14, more snowy owls than usual showed up south of their winter range. A group of scientists was curious to find out why. Do you have ideas why more owls showed up? These scientists worked together to ask questions and designed experiments to learn more about the ecology of wintering snowy owls.

I’m curious about owls, too. Over the winter a small owl visited my backyard. I wanted to know what kind of owl it was. I observed it was small, fluffy and cute. Was this enough data to figure out what species of owl it was? Almost! Looking closer I saw colors and patterns on the feathers. Then I looked at a checklist of Michigan birds, available from Michigan Audubon, and it turns out there are only 11 species of owls usually found in Michigan. I was able to look up images of each of the owls on All About Birds until I found one that looked just like my owl. It was an eastern screech owl!

It is not always easy to find owls, and some cultures consider a visit from an owl good luck. I was really lucky to see an owl in my backyard. Are you curious about owls? What questions do you have about owls? Do you want to focus on a specific owl like the snowy owl, screech owl, barn owl or just Michigan owls in general? Using books, talking with other bird watchers or looking on the Internet can help you answer some of your questions about owls.

What do you think you could do to best observe an owl in the wild? To see an owl in the wild, you’ll need to spend a lot of time outside. If you see an owl, enjoy the moment and gather data for identification. From your observations, record the size, color and even shape of the owl’s eyes to help you determine which species it is. Behavior is also helpful; what is the owl doing? A photograph or drawing of the owl you’re observing can be added to the gathered data. Owls are very vocal, if you’re lucky to hear it, this can help you determine the species.

Talk to someone knowledgeable about birds that may be able to assist you. All About Birds is a reliable source. Because of their habits, owls are difficult to spot, but these observation and identification techniques will work on other birds as well. Try it out on the bird in your backyard!

Using observation and data to solve problems and answer questions is what all good scientists do. Spring is just around the corner and nature will be full of new questions to ask and discoveries to make. Discover your inner scientist to understand and enjoy everything around you as science is everywhere!

To see owls and other birds of prey up close, don’t miss the Birds of Prey LIVE! program at the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Sunday, April 10, 2016, at 1 p.m. Registration and more information is available online. If a passion has been sparked in discovering more about Michigan owls, there are many educational opportunities available, such as camps with a specific bird focus like the Kids Being Scientist Camp at the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary.

Michigan State University Extension has many 4-H science programming areas for youth to explore. Science is everywhere with many questions to ask and discoveries to be made. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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