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The Breeding Season

The most magical time of year, the upcoming months will be an exciting blur of activity as we look to document this critically important season for owls.

Owl Research Institute breeding season

Each year, Great Horned Owls signal the start of the breeding season with their iconic calls in the night sky. It's one of the most recognizable, and wonderful, calls in the world. While these calls mark an unofficial start to an all-important season, there is much work to be done. For owls and owl researchers.

While Great Horned Owls are the first to nest, this happens at different times in different geographic areas. In western Montana, we typically find the first nest around mid-February. This season, the late winter seems to have delayed nesting by several weeks, and our first nest wasn't found until March 6th. Indeed, some females are just now committing to a nest. Remember, owls are not nest builders, but move into existing structures. Given that many of these nests are still filled with a mound of snow, the owls may be waiting for a little more melt from warming temps. Challenging hunting conditions - through deep and crusted snow - is likely a factor as well.

While Great Horned Owls kick off the season, it's not long before the rest of Montana’s owl species follow suit. Long-eared Owls, for example, have dispersed from their winter roosts (where we saw as many as 16 grouped together). Some have moved on to new areas, some have stayed. Pairs have formed and the process of choosing a nest begins. This process is happening with many other species as well.

For us, much of our energy will focus on finding these natural nests in the upcoming weeks. For the nine species that are part of our monitoring programs, locating these nests provides important data that bolsters our long-term research goals. These include: estimating population trends, evaluating responses to climate, understanding behavior, identifying important nest-site and habitat characteristics, and providing a record of their natural life histories.

But owls don't make the process easy. Unlike other birds of prey, like eagles or osprey, owls will often not nest in the same location from one year to the next. While the osprey pair on our live-cam will arrive back to their platform nest like clockwork, the owls keep us on standby – wondering, searching, and reacting to where they might call home. While we survey many known nest sites, the reward of finding an active nest is usually the result of much time spent searching. From the moment a discovery is made, we breathe a collective sigh of relief and satisfaction: monitoring efforts can be regulated, site characteristics can be collected, and plans to band the chicks, and occasionally the parents, can be made.

In the owl world, prey availability is a great governing force. And at no time is this more evident than during the breeding season. In our last update, we discussed how the late snow may positively impact rodent populations. And while it's too early to tell - deep snow still covers much of the ground - we remain hopeful that vole numbers will be high and we will see a strong breeding season. We love having more work than we can keep up with! And we are grateful for your support which makes all our work for owls possible!

As this exciting season unfolds, we look forward to sharing news and updates from the field!

Happy Spring from all of us at ORI!

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