Owl Research Institute in Pablo, Montana

Posted on 10 March 2016

denver holt
Denver Holt and student with owl. Dave Reese photo

Students with owl at Owl Research Institute in Pablo, Mont. Dave Reese photo

owl research
Measuring an owl at Owl Research Institute in Pablo, Mont. Dave Reese photo




       The thick grove of Russian olives shook as the two men worked through the thick underbrush. 
Owl Research Institute founder Denver Holt directed the men from outside the thickets. "Let's pick it up!" Holt barked to Shannon Clairmont and Rick Eneas, two of his volunteer researchers from the University of Montana who were battling a thick maze of undergrowth. 
      Ahead of them four owls floated quietly up and out of the thick tangle. The angles of the owls' wings reflected starkly against the blue January sky beneath the Mission Mountains. "OK, looking good!" Holt shouted as the workers continued to try to flush birds out of the brush.
      "There's a lot of birds in there," Holt says matter-of-factly as we moved along the wide thicket at the National Wildlife Refuge in Pablo, Montana. Ahead of the birds, in a small opening about 20 yards wide, Holt and his field researchers had earlier hung three "mist" nets - about the size of badminton nets - to try to capture the flushed owls. After a few hours and several passes through the brush, they were able to capture some birds. Holt shouted excitedly at his co-workers. "We've got two! I need some help over here!"
      Holt, founder of the Owl Research Institute in nearby Charlo, gently pulled the owls out of the netting and handed them to Clairmont and Eneas. 
      In native American mythology, the owl is said to be a bad omen, a harbinger of impending doom. But for Clairmont, a native American from Polson, holding an owl for the first time didn't represent a death omen - it gave him a chance to feel the wildness around him. 
      This is Holt's 20th year studying the long-eared owls in western Montana. His work at the Owl Research Institute is the longest year-round study of any kind of owl in North America. Over 1,000 long-eared owls have been banded during this study. The recapturing of these banded owls provides data on topics such as long-eared owl communal roosting, migration and mating habits. Among their findings so far is that long-eared owls practice seasonal monogamy, rather than mating for life with one partner, as previously suspected.  
      Although he's studied owls all over the world, Holt still gets a charge out of seeing owls up close and personal. "I love this," says Holt, an energetic and charismatic man who has built the Owl Research Institute using all private money, with the cooperation of private landowners and public agencies like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 
       The owls, bigger than a pigeon but smaller than a crow, sat quietly in the hands of the researchers after they had been pulled from the fine netting. The owls' heads swiveled on their feathered necks, and their eyelids blinked over lemon-yellow circles. One owl pecked at Clairmont's hands, which were splattered with white feces from the birds. "If they bite, you have to take it," Holt said. "It's part of the job. But it doesn't hurt as bad when your hands are cold." 
      The air on this January day was crisp and cold, and the dissonant honking of geese floated over the winter landscape from a nearby lake. A carpet of hard snow crunched under the researchers' feet. 
      Inside the labyrinth of brush, Holt pointed out an owl roost. The low-slung branches were covered with the white paste of their feces, and on the ground were owl droppings the size of shotgun shells. Most of the pellets had vole skulls and bones inside them, testament to the owls' favored diet. Inside the brush, it's dark but warm, a good place for owls to roost. "This is why most people never see owls," Holt explained.
      Around Holt's neck dangled a necklace of leg bands. He took one off, jotted down its number and crimped it over an owl's leg. After the birds were weighed and measured, they were quickly released.

      THE OWL RESEARCH INSTITUTE is located next to Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge in Charlo, in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation. This is farming and ranching country, where pheasant and waterfowl hunting is a strong tradition. Bird hunting can be inextricably linked to voles - small rodents that are the main food source for short-eared owls. Voles are also food for coyotes, skunks and foxes - animals that prey on the pheasant, ducks and geese that are hunted in the Mission Valley. When the vole populations are up, that takes pressure off the nesting pheasant, ducks and geese, Holt says.
      Locals here might have a hard time understanding the importance of "The sex of voles eaten by short-eared Owls," a research paper Holt completed in 1996, but when people can look at the voles and how they affect upland bird and waterfowl hunting in the Mission Valley, Holt's work hits home.
      Holt started the Owl Institute in 1986. While many research organizations studied the pre-eminent Montana symbols of wolves and bears, none had looked at owls, one of Holt's favorite animals. "No one has dedicated their lives to owls. But they just have always fascinated me," Holt says. "It was very difficult getting it started, but it's well-established now. I believe we're doing some pretty good work."      

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