The Banded Burrowing Owl

A BLM wildlife biologist’s recent sighting of a banded bird in his field office area led to a remarkable example of inter-agency collaboration.

Craig Miller, who works for the BLM’s Havre Field Office, was conducting sage-grouse surveys in a remote area of the Upper Missouri River Breaks in north-central Montana when he noticed some burrowing owls on a small prairie dog town. One of the owls was pretty close to the two-track dirt road he was traveling, and he thought he may have seen an identifying band on its legs. 

Photo. A small, brown-and-white burrowing owl stands on top of a dirt mound; bright-blue-colored band on its left leg; grassy prairie background; daytime.
The blue band on this small burrowing owl caught the eye of BLM biologist Craig Miller and led to a remarkable example of inter-agency collaboration. Photo by Craig Miller, wildlife biologist, Havre Field Office.

Bird banding is an important technique used by professional wildlife researchers for studying and identifying individual birds. Scientists put aluminum or colored bands on birds' legs. And, much like the license plate on a car, each metal band is engraved with a unique set of numbers.

“As I was grabbing the binoculars, I thought to myself, there is no way I would be able to see a small band on an owl with the naked eye,” said Miller. “Much to my surprise, BINGO, banded owl.”

Photo. Close-up of the legs of a small, brown-and-white burrowing owl standings on top of a dirt mound; bright-blue-colored band on its left leg; smaller, silver-colored band on its right leg; grassy prairie background; daytime.
The bands on the legs of this small burrowing owl were placed by researchers in Suffield, Alberta, about 185 miles from where the bird was sighted in north-central Montana. Banding is a technique used to identify and track individual birds. Photo by Craig Miller, wildlife biologist, Havre Field Office.

Miller took several photos of the banded owl using a spotting scope. He was only able to see a blueish-colored band with an R and a couple of 2s on it, as well as some numbers on a silver band on the bird’s other leg. He wasn’t certain how to find out more about the owl, so he reached out to a former colleague at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A few emails later, the email group network had expanded to include almost a dozen wildlife professionals from the BLM, U.S. FWS, the University of Idaho, a global owl conservation organization and an owl researcher in Canada.

“With the help of all of the experts on the email chain, we were able to identify the banded individual owl,” Miller said. “It was a pretty cool experience.”

David H. Johnson, founder of the Global Owl Project, who works with 450 people in 65 countries to research, track and preserve owl habitat, got drawn into the email chain. Among Johnson’s professional contacts in Canada, researchers identified the owl as one that had been banded in Alberta.

“That BUOW (burrowing owl) was banded July 11, 2022, by Conservation & Science team members working for the Wilder Institute. It was captured as a nestling, in the wild, inside an artificial nest-burrow,” Dr. Troy Wellicome, senior species-at-risk biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences, in Edmonton, Canada, wrote. “Both of the nestling’s parents were unbanded, wild BUOWs (i.e., did not spend any time in human care).” 

“The nestling was banded an estimated 30 days after it had hatched (based on flight feather lengths)...a few miles west of Suffield, Alberta,” Graham Dixon-MacCallum, a population ecologist at the Wilder Institute in Alberta, Canada, wrote. “This nestling was banded with a blue A-Craft aluminum band on its left leg, with the letter R over the number 22 etched into the blue anodized band.” 

The distance between the burrow in Montana where the blue-banded adult female was most-recently sighted is about 185 miles (as the owl flies) from its natal burrow where it was banded.

“Importantly now, will be to see if this female nests and produces young at its current site in Montana,” Johnson noted. 

“Make sure to give those burrowing owls a second look,” Miller suggested. “You never know if they might be part of someone’s important research.”

Learn more about burrowing owls on the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ website –

Craig Miller, Havre Field Office Wildlife Biologist; and Gina Baltrusch, North Central Montana District Public Affairs

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