Grace Carey '21 with a saw-whet owl

Deer, squirrels, raccoons, even foxes are among the wildlife commonly observed on Hamilton’s campus, but an owl is a rare sighting. Approximately 30 students and parents had the unusual opportunity to see more than two dozen northern saw-whet owls on Friday, Oct. 26, on college land beyond the glen.

According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Christopher Briggs, the saw-whet is “a small, but pugnacious, owl that breeds throughout much of northern North America, particularly in dense forest.  They weigh in at about the size of a medium apple – 80-100 grams.”

Saw-whet owlOrganized by Hamilton Sustainability Coordinators (HSC) member Hannah Katz ’21, the evening’s trip to the College’s muddy Reservoir Plot was devoted to measuring and banding these owls so as to better understand their migration, survival, and population trends.

“While there is no known threat to the population (with the species likely having between 100,000 – 300,000 individuals), we monitor because raptors make great indicators for ecosystem health.  Bioaccumulation is a real concern, and their diet on small mammals – coupled with our love to poison small mammals with anticoagulant rodenticides, could make them particularly vulnerable,” Briggs explained.

Briggs and a network of researchers act as “a sentinel, waiting to note if populations suddenly change.  We used to take abundant populations for granted – but we continue to learn our lesson that monitoring even abundant populations is critical,” he warned.

Along with students who had completed IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) training, Briggs caught, measured, weighed, and released 28 owls on Friday, a dry wind-free night ideal for the process. The raptors were caught with a mist net and an audio lure (i.e., conspecific call repeating that attracts them to the nets).  They were not hurt in the process and were released after 20-30 minutes. 

This banding project will help fill the hole between Ithaca and Albany in the saw-whet owl migration research currently in place in Pennsylvania and New York.

In talking about why the event was held during Fallcoming Weekend, Katz, chair of HSC’s Awareness and Education Task Force explained, “We wanted to be able to involve the greater Hamilton community and open events to parents as well as students. One of our main goals is getting the campus community to connect with nature (especially on campus) in order to foster interest in environmental awareness … Our philosophy is the more you can get students to connect with nature and their environment, the more interested they will become and the bigger change we can make.”

Director of Environmental Protection Safety and Sustainability Brian Hansen added, “[This] event provides a snapshot of the future of Hamilton’s reimagined and integrated sustainability initiative.” He pointed to an increase in sustainability-themed teaching and research opportunities.

“Consider recent efforts to increase low-impact recreational opportunities (like the Kirkland Glen trail marking project) and to reduce the acreage we manage through mowing (like the golf course reforestation and Rogers Estate pollinator garden projects). … It’s how we engage our entire Hamilton community to live, learn and work sustainably.”

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