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Scientists Spot First Northern Saw-Whet Owl in Arkansas

Jan 28, 2015 03:34 PM EST

Scientists have spotted the first northern saw-whet owl in Arkansas, a species previously believed to not frequent the state during wintering months, according to new research.

Led by wildlife biologists Kimberly Smith and Mitchell Pruitt of the University of Arkansas, researchers captured and banded the northern saw-whet owl at the Ozark Natural Science Center near Huntsville in late November to learn more about its habitat and range. Normally, trapping or possessing migratory birds is illegal in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Smith, a master bird bander, is licensed to do so by the federal government.

Prior to this study, between 1959 and 2010 there were only a dozen sightings of this rare bird recorded in the state. This elusive species is typically found in the northern United States and along various ranges of the Appalachian Mountain, living in low, brushy areas (especially cedar forests).

But little is known about their distribution during winter, wince saw-whets are difficult to locate during this time.

So findings and captured this latest northern saw-whet provides scientists with a wonderful opportunity of better understanding their range and habitat. After examining the bird and taking measurements, the team determined that it was a large female adult in its second year of life, weighing a mere three ounces.

What's more, after this initial capture and release, Smith and Pruitt captured another adult female at the Ozark Natural Science Center.

"The fact that we were able to capture two birds in the same place within two weeks of each other is really incredible, given that this owl has only been seen in Arkansas about a dozen times in the last 55 years," Smith said in a statement.

Northern saw-whets typically migrate south each year, even when food is abundant up north in its usual habitat. The researchers suspect that this year there was an exceptionally large feast in the northern states, encouraging most birds, unlike the two seen in Arkansas, to stay put.

Researchers plan to continue banding and studying this secretive species through spring this year and into next fall and winter to learn more about its wintering habits.

Northern saw-whets eat mice and their natural predators are other species, such as barred and great horned owls.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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