Forest Owl Study

A citizen science effort to better understand the long-term effects of climate change on forest owls.

Cavity nesting species, including small owls, play important roles in many ecosystems.  Many rely upon other animals (woodpeckers) or processes (rot and decay) to create the cavities that they shelter and breed in.  Despite being quite popular at the moment in popular culture, very little information exists on the breeding ecology and habitat relationships of many small owl species.  In fact, many small forest owl species are listed as ‘Species of Greatest Conservation Need’ in the State Wildlife Action Plans of many western U.S. states.

The Flammulated Owl is a little-studied cavity nesting species, and aside from a long-running study in coniferous forests in Colorado, we know very little about this tiny owl and the habitats in which it occurs.  In addition to being cavity nesters, Flammulated Owls are migratory and primarily insectivorous—a unique suite of characteristics in a small forest owl and one that could render this species particularly sensitive to forest management and climate change impacts.  Whiskered Screech-owls are at the northern extent of their range in southeast Arizona.  We don’t know how this little-studied owl species will respond to changing climate either—will its range expand northward or will it shrink as the "Sky-island" systems we find it in contract?  What will the ranges of other owls do, such as the Elf Owl, Western Screech-owl, Northern Pygmy-owl, or Northern Saw-whet Owl?  Will the timing or outcome of nesting efforts change, and do they differ in different forest types?

We also have very little understanding about cavities themselves; for example, how do formation rates and/or cavity ‘lifespan’ vary in different forest types or in the light of a changing climate?  These important habitat elements effect not only small forest owls but other cavity-nesting birds species, small mammals like squirrels and bats, and even some amphibian and reptile species.

HawkWatch International is partnering with the Earthwatch Institute to address some of these questions and fill information gaps regarding the natural history of some owl species in two exciting locations in the western U.S.: The Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona and the Wasatch Mountains in northern Utah.  Earthwatch has supported conservation research around globe since 1971 by linking conservation-minded citizen scientists willing to donate their time with research projects of all types.  If you take part in this expedition you will help further understanding of how climate change and forest type impact owls and their habitat.  You will help track changes in both the timing and outcome of owl nesting efforts in a variety of habitats.  You will also help us search for, measure and document where natural cavities occur, while also monitoring the status of owl nests found along the way.  You will also help measure important habitat characteristics around cavities.

Whether in the Chiricahua mountains in beautiful southeast Arizona or the picturesque Wasatch mountains in northern Utah, participants will be contributing to a project designed to provide a broader picture of owl ecology across a variety of landscapes and latitudes and that will ultimately yield a better understanding of climate change impacts on wildlife.

>  Read through our 2016 Field Report.

>  View the Briefing Document for full project details.

>  Visit the EarthWatch page to learn more and book your expedition spot.

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