Fish and Game biologist big on owls

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) When owls speak this spring, Jack Whitman will be listening.

Whitman is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's new nongame research biologist and his first task on what is becoming a very long to-do list is to begin counting and calculating the size and health of the owl community around Fairbanks through hooting surveys.''

Relatively little is known about owl ecology and they are something that kind of piques the interest of the public because this time of year a lot of people hear them,'' Whitman said.

Almost everyone who lives in the hills and forests around Fairbanks has heard the call of boreal, great horned or great gray owls.

The phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo, phoo'' of the boreal owl cuts through the night silence, while the hoo, ha-hoo, hooo, hoo'' of the great horned owl lends a spooky quality to the shadowland of the boreal forest ecosystem.

Their calls signal the end of winter, long before the arrival of spring geese.

When owls begin hooting and hollering in the night, it means they are nesting and searching for mates. That yearly ritual begins much earlier for owls than other species, Whitman said. Mating can begin for owls as much as two months earlier than other species.

It's an adaptation where their young molt when other animals are a little younger and more vulnerable,'' Whitman said.

This advantage over prey animals like birds and rodents seems to suit Fairbanks-area owls just fine. The population seems robust and usually gets a boost this time of year from bird enthusiasts who put up boreal owl boxes to provide more nesting opportunities.

Whitman will be building and hanging his own boxes in the coming weeks and the Friends of Creamer's Field are selling boxes from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Creamer's Field.

Though great horned owls shun the boxes, they have plenty of housing to choose from thanks to a squatter's mentality.

They're not particularly good nest builders, so they often just take over another bird's nest from the previous season,'' Whitman said.

Hooting surveys have been done before, but nothing on a scale big enough to yield broad population data. Whitman hopes to rectify that gap in the scientific record beginning this spring.

Whitman, who just moved to the Interior from Sitka, will start small. He has broken the next six weeks into two-week sections and hopes to complete five nocturnal surveys during each period.

Whitman envisions a future program where dozens of volunteers would help count owls and turn in their results to Fish and Game.

Over the long term, the accumulated counts will allow biologists to watch the rise and fall of owl population numbers, a key indicator in the diagnosis of ecosystem health, Whitman said.

By looking at these species generally at the apex of the food chain owls and other raptors you can make an inference of the rest of the food chain,'' he said.

Whitman's work is unique in the department. His position is brand new, the result a federal program that provides funding to nongame research that must be matched by state funds that were not earmarked for game animal management, such as bear, moose or waterfowl.

That leaves a wide swath of fauna, which Whitman will be chasing far and wide across the northern half of the state.

Somebody put a tag on the door that says, 'chickenhawks, pollywogs and gophers,''' Whitman joked. Pretty much anything not usually hunted or trapped is under the purview of this job.''

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