On the prowl with Oregon's pygmy owls

  • John Deshler shows the wing of a pygmy owlet in Forest Park.

    John Deshler
  • Six pygmy owl nestlings in their tree stump nest.

    John Deshler
  • John Deshler searches for owls in Forest Park.

    Nick Neely
  • John Deshler, self portrait with an adult pygmy owl.

    John Deshler

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And while the pyggers are often found near trails and pay no mind to joggers and dogs, they nest as far from this peninsular park’s edge as possible, almost in a line down its eight-mile middle. That flies in the face of another assumption. “You can go online and read things like, ‘They are probably never found in dense continuous forest,’ which is just wrong,” Deshler says. The clarification is important in a region where the logging industry often argues that patchy edge habitat benefits many species. “They can see and hunt just fine without us cutting down trees,” he says.

Deshler transfers the owl from his gloved right, to his bare left, gripping her tarsi between his largest fingers, so she sits atop his fist—a safe, reliable way to hold a wild bird. Puff—he blows on her crown feathers and strokes them, touching up her head, nape, and shoulder with a single finger, like a painter might a canvas. She unfurls and flaps her wings, then leaves them draped around his knuckles. “You’re a toughie,” Deshler tells her. “You’re saying, ‘Man there’s three of these big guys around. This is not my best day.’ But my new net worked on you, didn’t it?” He slips a ruler behind her left wing, and she cranes her neck and gnaws on the tool’s head, refusing to unclamp. When Deshler lets go of the ruler, it hangs from her bill like the fat, rectangular tail of a steel mouse. Then clang, it drops.

“Come on,” Deshler says, “I need you to cut it out. Settle it all down, girl, and don’t bite.” This try, the top of the tool nudges gently against her cheek. Her pale eyelids half-eclipse as she cocks her head and, resigned, nibbles on the metal. With his right hand, Deshler smoothes her wing flush against the ruler’s edge.  “You’ve got to put your tail down, sweetie, you just have to. Because I can’t get this right with your tail up.  And I know you’re more than 88—I just know it—because we’re not getting your last feather. Come on, that last feather’s the one I want, and it’s way out there. All right, there you are: Ninety … 93 and a half.”

Deshler takes such meticulous measurements because he’s not just studying the birds’ habitat selection, but their reproductive biology. He’s noticed some fascinating trends: For example, though this particular bird may be big, Deshler’s research suggests there is an advantage to being small. Typically, Forest Park’s smaller females breed a week or so before larger birds, which, according to ecological theory, would provide them a long-term reproductive advantage: The pygmiest of owls can raise more owlets and, if the nest should fail, perhaps bring up another brood. Smaller owls might do better especially when rodent populations are low and they rely wholly on songbirds, like the Pacific wrens that twitter loud and crystalline through the forest. “They do that at their own peril, around pygmy-owls,” says Deshler. But a wren only weighs nine grams, pre-plucked. Tiny pygmy-owls might do better because they’re more agile and need less food themselves.

Let go,” Deshler asks, one last time. “Then we’re going to let you go.” Like a falconer, he raises her up, to show her off, and says, “The false eyes never really look very good, when they get upset like this.” But they look pretty good, to me, these windows into evolution that stare out from the back of her noggin: black jack-o-lantern triangles, lined with white, upside-down V eyebrows. From a distance, they might well fool you, or another bird. Freeze, they say. “All right, good. Since we got all those pictures, we’ll let you go.” He finally stands, and paces off a few steps with her.

These days, given baby Henley and a bad economy, Deshler might not have made the choice he made in 2007 to study the pyggers: sacrificing a nine-to-five lifestyle in order hold something unknown close to his chest, for a while. He will go back to work soon, this time as the Forest Park Wildlife Study Coordinator for Portland Parks and Recreation—a job designed for him. But he doesn’t regret his time away from an office. “There’s really not much better to do than come out and research pygmy-owls,” he says. “Better than fly-fishing.”

To the bird, Deshler whispers, “You’re a beauty.” He extends his arm, relaxes his fist. Over the past few years, Deshler’s learned Forest Park drainages like the lines of the palm he now opens. He respects this place, and this species, deeply enough to let them go, and to share them with me. The big girl flutters. She flies. Deshler watches, and kisses the air.

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