Night Watchers: Montana’s Owl Research Institute

Barn Owl at the Owl Research Institute
Photo courtesy the Owl Research Institute


Right now, owlets are being born in Montana. Their parents could be heard calling plaintively back and forth in December and early January announcing the new breeding season. Soon, fluffy owlets will emerge from eggs, weighing only a few ounces.

For more than 30 years, founder and director of the Owl Research Institute, Denver Holt, has gathered data to help understand and protect these night watchers. A graduate of the University of Montana, Holt knew he didn’t want to spend his career behind a desk; instead, he wanted to be in the field as much as possible. But he had to find a way to support that passion.

“The Institute was really started on a wing and a prayer,” explains Liberty De Granpre who is in charge of development. “Denver just started talking to people about the importance of gathering data on owls, and people decided to take a chance and help fund the effort.”

Initially, the Institute was a cooperative field station located in Holt’s basement with student volunteers. A few years later, with outside funding increasing, “The Farm” was purchased outside Charlo, Mont., on the Flathead Indian Reservation and has served as the field station ever since.

At first, the focus was strictly on data collection from the field, but, over the years, data, while still important, has morphed into using the data to help conserve owls and their habitat.

“Today, Denver worries about owls,” says DeGranpre. “It’s an emotional response in addition to data gathering.”

Of the 250 owl species worldwide, Montana is home to 15. The Owl Research Institute is actively gathering data on snowy owls, barn owls, short-eared owls, flammulated owls, northern pygmy owls, northern saw-whet owls, and boreal owls.

Snowy Owl Project

The longest running study is their snowy owl project.

“Denver has been collecting data in the Arctic each summer for 30 years,” explains DeGranpre.

“The study area is near Barrow, Alaska, close to a tiny native village, the only place the snowy owls breed in the United States. The breeding study has gone on for 20 nights each year in the same area, providing unique consistency over time.

Unlike most owls, snowy owls are diurnal in the summer when the sun never sets in Alaska and nocturnal during the winter, so they are easily observed during their breeding period. While all wildlife populations rise and fall, this long-term study has identified important trends. Snowy owl numbers are tied to brown lemmings as their main food source.

If lemming numbers drop, so do snowy owl numbers. These owls will also add weasels and small birds to their diet, but brown lemmings are their primary food source.

“What this 30-year study shows,” says DeGranpre, “is there is a declining population of both lemmings and snowy owls over the decades, with the fear that the trend-line will continue to zero. Something is clearly changing, but we’re just not sure what yet. NOAA has a weather station in Barrow but we can’t find a correlation between weather and population data at this time.”

While the Snowy Owl Project fires up every summer, other longterm research occurs in Montana year-round.

Long-Eared Owl Project

The Long-eared Owl Project is one of the longest studies of any North American species.

“That species has been declining in the U.S., but 2020 saw the biggest long-eared owl nesting year ever,” says DeGranpre. “But we don’t know from just one year if the population boom will continue. That’s why these longterm studies are so important.”

Northern Saw-Whet Project

The Northern Saw-whet Project entails a mobile banding site outside Missoula. This is a year-round project because, even during the winter, saw-whet owls can be found nesting in tree cavities. The Institute staff and volunteers have identified 55 natural nest sites as well as a few nests in nesting boxes.

These small owls are forest generalists, being found in cottonwood stands at lower elevations and as high as 7,000 feet in mixed conifer habitat. The Institute hopes the data they are collecting will help guide the Forest Service in their snag retention policies, providing necessary nest cavities for saw-whet owls.

Strong Volunteer Network

Like most nonprofits, the Owl Research Institute depends on volunteer help. Some volunteers, like Steve Hiro, a retired cardiologist, have volunteered for years.

“Steve has hiked hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of hours documenting nest sites for the Northern Pygmy Owl over 25 years,” says DeGranpre. “He’s just been an incredible volunteer gathering so much critical data.”

The Institute has an active Citizens Science outreach effort with volunteers helping staff in the field, trapping and banding owls and watching live cams of nesting sites for several species.

“We provide a standard data form for volunteers to record observations,” says DeGranpre. “Their observations are very astute. Right now, we have cameras on great horned owls, long-eared owls and great gray owls. Great grays are unique in that they roost communally, so cameras can see different owls on the live-cams.”

Educational Outreach

The Institute has a robust educational outreach program as well. Staff members have visited local elementary schools for years, helping kids understand and appreciate owls. High school students can spend a morning in class then spend the afternoon in the field with staff doing actual data collecting.

University and community college students have opportunities to be part of the local research projects.

By working with local civic groups and adult education programs, like Road Scholar, the Institute provides opportunities to learn raptor identification, raptor ecology, and owl research.

A wonderful way to learn about the Institute is to visit their website, which is chock-full of information about each research project and about owls in general. There are excellent videos on the site as well. The tab Owl Notes lets viewers come “into” the field with researchers: a terrific way to learn about owls in the comfort of your own home.

And once we are free from COVID, contact the Institute to find out how you can volunteer to help owls! MSN