Owl Prowl


A quick post recapping last week’s SNRE (first-ever?) Owl Prowl!

The Owl Prowl began with brief presentation in the Dana Building’s Ford Commons. Before jumping right to the owls, we talked a little bit about Michigan — and how it’s a unique bioregion compromised of many ecosystems and habitats (such as forests, prairies, and even urban areas) that support some really cool kinds of birds and wildlife — like owls! (I thought it would be important to give this kind of “primer” since many of the students are from other countries and may not know about owls and their relationship to this part of the world.)


Photo by Parker Anderson

Next, we quickly went over what makes an owl a owl — getting an “up close” look at some physical adaptations (such as their sound-muffing flight feathers, asymmetrical ear canals that help them pinpoint prey, disc-shaped faces to focus sound, and more) that make them such formidable nocturnal hunters.

We went over some of the owls that live in Michigan — and specifically those that we might find in the Arboretum, such as the Saw-whet owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Long-eared Owl (one that was spotted on campus right outside the Dana building last fall).

Thank you so much to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology for kindly and generously lending the owl wings and study skins so that we could look at some of the adaptations up close.

Photo by Parker Anderson


(See the grapefruits? If our skulls were the size of an owl’s, that’s how big our eyes would be!)

317997_10102245301379853_657019563_nPhotos by Ian Tran

After that, we talked about behavioral adaptations — such as those related to breeding, nesting, calling, and establishing territory. Like many territorial birds, owls resolve territory conflicts with calls and songs (rather than with physical fighting, which costs a lot of energy).

In fact, if you play an owl call in another owl’s territory, there is a good chance that they will call back, thinking that you are an intruder. Playing an owl’s call — a technique scientists called “playback” — is something we would do to search for owls. We briefly talked about the right and wrong ways to look for owls (you can read more about the ethics of playback here on David Sibley’s blog). Because we are imitating a territory invader, we would limit the use of calls — we don’t want to risk scaring the owl away from its own territory.

Before embarking on our university-approved journey through the lovely Nichols Arboretum, we went over some basic “forest etiquette” as well as some basic owling tips (including how to “owl” respectfully — staying as quiet as possible, limiting use of playback, etc.).

Just about to head into Nichols Arboretum (thanks again, Ian, for the photo):


Under the beautiful night sky, we took our one-hour journey along the winding trails of the Arboretum — stopping at four locations (including along the bank of the Huron River). At each stop, we would play the owl call once or twice, and then listen for a response. Of course, we also watched the trees — in silhouette — all around us just in case one flew in.

Although no owl was officially confirmed — even a few people believed they heard one and a few others believed they saw one fly by — I am going to call it a success. 29 people showed up (much larger than the small group I was expecting), many of whom had something valuable to share (whether it was knowledge/expertise or enthusiasm and curiosity); the weather was beautiful; the sky was clear and you could see stars; many of us who practically live inside the Dana building were finally able to “get” outside, something that we definitely need to do more of.

One of my favorite parts wasn’t actually during the prowl — it was afterwards, when we stopped to reflect and recap. On that, Ian weighs in:

Evening recap: we weren’t sure if we heard owls, but some of us think we heard a flying squirrel, and all of us noted the sound of intoxicated sorority girls and more constant sounds like vehicle traffic that made it challenging to listen for owls.

A lot of us thought it was hard to listen for owls over the “hum” of the city. A lot of other animals who depend on sound to survive probably find the “hum” hard to listen in, too. Since many birds (such as owls) resolve territorial disputes with sound, and what happens when their voices get drowned out by dogs barking, people cheering, and police sirens wailing? There is some interesting and fairly new research coming out about that (here is just one study of many, published last Thursday):

As interdisciplinary environmental scholars who are committed to finding sustainable ways of living within and with our natural environment, “sound pollution” is a very interesting (but often overlooked) thing to think about!

We wrapped things up on that note — thinking about (1) all the unique ways in which we effect our environment, (2) the unique challenges that certain animals face in urban places (as well as how some animals adapt), and (3) how great it was to spend time around people with have similar sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world.

Saras b_day 073

I am definitely look forward to having another SNRE (probably bird-related) outing in the spring!


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