Project Overview

Within the western Dakotas, forests occur as tiny corridors and patches in the middle of a sea of grass. These forested patches are stopover sites for a variety of migrating forest bird species, yet the role of these forested islands and corridors for migrating forest owls is not known. In addition, these patches are increasingly impacted by fires, tree insect pest outbreaks, and degradation, possibly impacting their quality as stopover or breeding sites. This project operates a series of owl banding stations during the fall migration period along the Little Missouri River corridor in the western Dakotas, focusing on the Northern saw-whet owl (NSWO). The banding not only helps us understand owl migration patterns in relation to forest issues in the Great Plains, but fills a gap in the continent-wide Project Owlnet monitoring program.

Intern Megan Massa (left) and bander Dawn Garcia (right) process a Northern Saw-whet Owl at Bird Conservancy’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park banding station. Photo: Peder Stenslie

At the banding station, we set up a series of mist nets surrounding an audiolure. At dark, we open the nets and turn on the audiolure which broadcasts the territorial call of NSWO into the night sky. We check the nets every half hour for four hours, taking any captured owls back to the processing area to measure, sex, age, and band before release.

Positioning the mist nets.  Photo: Nancy Drilling

The number of owls (including NSWO, Eastern Screech-owls, and Long-eared Owls) that we catch varies greatly among years, ranging from 75 to 400 a year. We also capture owls that are already banded; between 2011 and 2018, we recaptured 28 such birds, giving us some information on where the owls have been and where they are going. But many questions remain about the cyclic nature of Saw-whet populations, the sources of our birds, and the impacts of changes to conifer forests on these small owls.


This internship is ideal for those looking to develop their bird-handling and bird-banding skills. Interns work alongside professional seasonal technicians and permanent BCR staff at one of Bird Conservancy’s fall migratory owl banding stations in the western Dakotas during the month of October. Interns are fully integrated into our field work and get lots of hand-on experience working at a banding station, including the capture, measurement and banding of small raptors. Applicants must be able to walk moderate distances and be able to work outside in very cold conditions during long nights. Applicants must also be comfortable interacting with public visitors of all ages. To become adept at owl banding, the Intern is expected to participate the entire month of October.

Learning Objectives

Interns can expect to gain the following knowledge and skills:

  • Natural history and identification of migrant owls
  • Set-up and take-down of a banding station
  • Safe extraction of raptors from mist nets
  • Owl ageing and sexing
  • Banding and taking measurements of owls
  • Accurate collection, entry, and proofing of scientific data
  • Comprehending and following scientific protocols

The application period generally is open during August.