Agencies to survey owls with public help

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Department of Fish and Game to launch new study

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

As daylight shortens and the autumn rains commence, most Alaskan birds migrate south to warmer climates for the winter months. But don't put those binoculars (and birding skills) on the shelf just yet. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game are launching a study to investigate seasonal distribution and abundance of forest owls throughout Southeast Alaska - and we're asking for your help.

Very little is known about the natural history, distribution and abundance of forest owls in Southeast Alaska. Our three-year study will gather information to design a Southeast Alaska-wide owl monitoring program. One of our objectives is to document seasonal distribution by gathering observations from the public.

There are eight species of forest owls known to occur in Southeast Alaska, and seven of these species are suspected or known to breed here. While owls are assumed to breed in our region in late winter and early spring (February to April), many are thought to occur throughout the entire year. Three characteristics are helpful when identifying an owl - size, presence of ear tufts, and sound. Some of the more common forest owls that are known to breed in Southeast Alaska include (from largest to smallest):

• Great horned owl. This species is the largest forest owl to occur commonly in Southeast Alaska, and the only large owl to have ear tufts. Its loud, deep, resonant hooting can be heard at great distances. Territorial hooting consists of three to eight notes - HOO, HOO-OO, HOO, HOO. A mnemonic, or useful phrase to help remember the rhythm is "Who's awake? Me too."

• Barred owl. This is a medium-sized owl with dark brown eyes and no ear tufts. This species is undergoing a rapid western expansion, and only within the last 25-30 years has this species been documented in Southeast Alaska. Hooting of barred owls is usually more emphatic, and not so deep, than that of a great horned owl. A reliable mnemonic for this species is, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"

• Western screech owl. This is the only small owl in Southeast Alaska that has ear tufts. These birds are strictly nocturnal, spending the day concealed in vegetation or cavities, with eyes closed, body feathers compressed, and ear tufts raised to blend with tree bark. The song is a series of hollow whistles on one pitch, accelerating in tempo (like the rhythm of a small ball bouncing to a standstill).

• Northern saw-whet owl. Similar in size to the Northern pygmy owl, the Northern saw-whet lacks eye spots and ear tufts. This species is crepuscular, meaning that it is most active during late evening and early morning. Hooting is a mellow, whistled note repeated mechanically in endless succession - usually 100 to 130 times per minute. It is higher-pitched, and much faster than the Northern pygmy owl. This species was named after its nonterritorial call, which sounds like a saw being sharpened.

• Northern pygmy owl. This is a very small owl, about the size of an American robin. These birds have false eye spots on the back of their heads, lack ear tufts, and are commonly seen hunting during the day. Unlike most owls, this species is diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day rather than at night. The song of this species is a single, mellow whistle - HOO - repeated every one to two seconds. It is usually slower than the Northern saw-whet owl.

Rare or uncommon forest owls that are encountered in Southeast Alaska include the boreal owl, great gray owl, and the Northern hawk owl. The short-eared owl and snowy owl also occur in this region, but are commonly associated with open habitats such as the Mendenhall Wetlands, and are not considered a forest owl.

To take advantage of opportunistic observations made by the public, we are creating the Southeast Alaska Owl Network. We are currently recruiting one volunteer in each community of Southeast Alaska to compile information about owl sightings in their area. All sightings (both visual and aural) will be documented on an observation card. This is an attempt to standardize information throughout all of Southeast Alaska. Volunteers also may have opportunities to participate in surveys and other aspects of our research.

If you're interested in volunteering or learning more about the Southeast Alaska Owl Network, please e-mail us at, or telephone Michelle Kissling at 586-7242 for more information.

Juneau Audubon will also offer a free public lecture at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14 at Egan Lecture Hall, University of Alaska Southeast. To view upcoming events on the society's Web page, visit

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