Just Because You Don’t See Them...


Screen_Shot_2020-03-12_at_1.05.24_PM.pngLucila Fernandez, Conservation Outreach Biologist at the Tracy Aviary, doesn’t have to look far for the perfect little helper to hold our speakers high. 


A search for our carnivorous feathered friends

While we wait for the temperatures in Salt Lake to rise, some animals have proven themselves to be a tad better adapted to the Utah winter and remain incredibly active in the cold. In the case of the Great Horned Owl, that means February hooting for all of Liberty Park to hear - leaving the rest of us to identify the culprit. So what kind of owls live in Utah? And which are right in your backyard living in the treetops surrounding our favorite hiking trails? 

On Sunday, February 9th, Tracy Aviary launched a new series of Owl Walks. These are casual walks in secret locations around Salt Lake County to look for owls. While a fun thing to do, these walks double up as a study to better understand where owls are and where they aren’t. This baseline information allows us to then ask questions as to what habitats need more protection and which habitats are potential places for owls to live in.

Owls can be pretty elusive, even when you have the support of 30 community members and the fantastic Tracy Aviary conservation team on your side. Here are some tips I learned on my first owl walk that you can use for a better chance of spotting one!

1. Keep your ears wide open! 

This may not come as a shock, but it's hard to see owls at night! Our first tool for tracking an owl on our bird walk wasn’t a pair of binoculars or a flashlight, but our very own ears. I learned how to cup my ears to maximize my auditory range! To do this, simply place one hand on top of the other, almost like you are going to scoop up water with your hand. Then, take the hand on top and place the curve of your hand around the ear lobe on the corresponding side of your body. So don’t forget to cup your ears once in a while for maximum auditory range!

2. Watch out for the ice!

For those of us stuck on the ground with our eyes in the skies, straying off the beaten path can be a hazard. The biggest thing you’ve got to be worried about when you’re scouring the treetops for a boreal owl? The ice! There’s no reason to shine a flashlight at trees during an owl walk, but when you’re birding in the dark, flashlights can help you with looking out for those pesky patches of ice -- so it’s a great idea to have one on you to watch your footing. Plus, it doubles up as a light source to take notes on where we find the owls and what we see. 

3. It’s okay to not see an owl every time!

I personally didn’t see any owls. Despite this, I couldn’t be happier with my experience. Seeing an owl is great, but community science is all about working with the people around you to find out what birds are and aren’t in an area, so finding out your route doesn’t have any signs of owls is science in itself!


Screen_Shot_2020-03-12_at_1.05.35_PM.pngBirders of all skill levels gather ‘round and look high in the treetops in hopes of catching a call. 

“Sometimes no data, is good data” 

This was the coolest and most scientific thing said to me during the Owl Walk. Tracy Aviary’s Conservation Ecologist, Bryant Olsen explained that even though it can be disappointing if we don’t see the owls during a walk, it is just as valuable to know where the birds aren’t as where they are. If we go back to the same spot and continue to  not see owls there, it can equip us to start asking, “Why aren’t owls in this particular place?” Then, we can look at what trees are there, what types of trees aren’t there, and make suggestions as to what needs to be planted to make that site a happier home.

Our initial walk of the season was first and foremost about gaining the knowledge to continue our surveying adventures throughout the year. Growing up in Utah, you may never realise the fantastic wildlife habitats that exist right in your backyard - projects like the Tracy Aviary Owl Walks invite the people of Salt Lake into the world of conservation. We’re so fortunate to have the wide open wilderness at our fingertips, so go explore it! And remember that when it comes to birding, it’s just as important to know where birds aren’t as it is knowing where they are. 

*A special thanks to Young Living Farms for their generous support of owl research! 


Learn more

Visit Tracy Aviary’s community science pages to learn more about how you can get involved: http://www.tracyaviaryconservation.org/

Now Recruiting: Lights Out Volunteers to help protect birds, like owls,  that depend on dark skies. Learn more here http://www.tracyaviaryconservation.org/recruiting-lightsout




- AJ Johnson, Community Science Intern