New Citizen Science Project Focuses on Eastern Screech-Owls in Fort Collins

By April 24, 2013Science

Friday, July 7 update: The data collection phase is complete! We’ve gathered all the data sheets from our volunteer citizen scientists. A total of 42 sites along the Cache la Poudre River were visited 3 times each, with a total of 25 detections of Eastern Screech-Owls across 8 sites. Thank you to all of the volunteers who gathered data for the project, as well as Denver Field Ornithologists for funding and the City of Fort Collins for support.

Thursday, May 30 update: The data collection phase is nearing completion for this project. A total of 39 sites along the Cache la Poudre River were visited 3 times, with a total of 21 detections of Eastern Screech-Owls across 6 sites. We’re still collecting data sheets from volunteers, so a final total will be posted later. 

Eastern Screech-Owls are the most common owl species in North America, yet little is known about their habitat needs or population dynamics. To fill these knowledge gaps – and get citizens involved in science linked to their natural environment – RMBO launched a new project last month in Fort Collins, Colorado, to monitor Eastern Screech-Owls along the Cache la Poudre River.

The river, a designated National Heritage Area, is prime habitat for these owls along the eastern edge of the Front Range and a valuable resource for recreation, making it ideal for a citizen science project, said research biologist Rob Sparks. “This helps us fill both scientific and social objectives,” Rob said. “We can gather data on screech-owl breeding populations and habitat needs, while involving citizens in a project that helps them connect with nature and learn the value of the Poudre River and surrounding habitat.”

Eastern Screech-Owl

An Eastern Screech-Owl perches in its nest in a plains cottonwood tree along the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado. Photo by Rob Sparks.

From mid-March to late May, 18 volunteers will visit 40 survey sites along the Poudre River three times at night. Following a set protocol, volunteers alternate between call playback of an Eastern Screech-Owl breeding song and silent periods at the site and document any owls detected. Volunteers also collect data on the noise level, wind speed, time, moon phase and other variables, as well as other owls present, such as Long-eared, Barn and Great Horned Owls. As of April 19, all sites had been visited once with a total of 11 detections of Eastern Screech-Owls, despite recent snowstorms that have filled nesting cavities, hampered access and may impact nesting and breeding success.

Rob said that because the study follows a probabilistic design, the data gathered by volunteers can be used to estimate population size and occupancy within the study area. The Eastern Screech-Owl is an indicator species for the City of Fort Collins, so this information will help gauge overall riparian health along the Poudre River urban corridor and guide future conservation efforts for this important natural area.

This study has been made possible by a grant from Denver Field Ornithologists and assistance from City of Fort Collins staff, RMBO staff and, of course, dedicated citizen scientists.

Visit our Citizen Science page for opportunities to get involved in this project.