Student focuses study on the tiny flammulated owl |

Student focuses study on the tiny flammulated owl

Summit Daily News/Janice KurbjunJustin Kay, 9 years old and in fourth grade, is on a six-week vacation in Breckenridge. His studies are directed by his teacher and guided by Frisco's Sage Tutoring service, and part of his study of owls involves dissecting a barn owl and reconstructing its skeleton. Here, he holds an owl's skull with a set of tweezers.

When 9-year-old Justin Fay was looking for an owl to research during his six weeks of vacation in Breckenridge, he opted for the flammulated owl. “I’m the smallest kid in my class, and most of (the flammulated owl’s) type is a lot bigger than it, so I can relate to it,” Fay said. He originally wanted to study the rufous owl, but since it abides in the Papua New Guinea and Australian region of the world, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to contact wildlife biologists for his research. So, he opted for the bird native to Colorado and the greater western United States, whose name means “of a reddish color.”Fay said the owl lives in Colorado, but flies south “very quickly” when it gets cold. Indeed, has calls recorded from the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado, and shows its range running from Washington to Mexico. The owl’s abides in areas rich with coniferous trees along moist, cool upland slopes below timberline, with a brushy understory. They tend to live in areas where summers are dry and warm, but they seek certain temperatures according to elevation and time of day. Habitats farther south are likely to be higher in elevation.Fay said they make nests in cavities left behind by woodpeckers. They tend to congregate in breeding populations and have a buffer habitat – they leave adjacent areas of ideal habitat empty.

The flammulated owl is one of the smallest owls out there, with males weighing about 1.9 ounces and the female weighing about 2 ounces, Fay said. They are about 6 to 7 inches long with a wingspan of 14 to 19 inches, making it about the same size as the pygmy owl. He added that he was surprised to learn that the great horned owl, which is much larger than the flammulated owl, will prey on the smaller bird. “It’s about the size of a sparrow,” said Carla Cammarata, director of Sage Tutoring and Fay’s vacation instructor. It’s the smallest eared owl and is distinctive because it’s the only small owl with dark blackish-brown eyes – other small owls have a yellow iris.One of the most interesting facts Kay learned is that the flammulated owl is an insectivore – it eats mostly moths from dusk to dawn, but also preys on beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, centipedes, millipedes, spiders and scorpions.”I never knew that,” Kay said. “I thought they ate mice.”Cammarata has Kay calling and e-mailing local wildlife biologists to learn about the specific owl and about the species as a whole. She’s also teaching him to cross-reference online resources (such as YouTube videos and websites) with what the experts say to ensure he has the facts straight. “You need to go straight to the source,” Kay said, explaining that the YouTube video he watched was created by researchers who had been studying the owl for nearly 30 years. He said he learned what a female flammulated owl sounds like from that video. “The female call is kind of like a cat,” he said, imitating a high-pitched meow. Males and females look alike, but can be differentiated by their call. Part of Kay’s research is to learn how birds interact with the same and different species, and for that, he’s going on a field trip to Keystone Resort. Ashley Nettles, district wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, helped Kay learn about the owl and then invited him to participate in the agency’s extension of a research project on brown-capped rosy finches that’s ongoing at Aspen. Soon, she, other officials and interested youths will head to Keystone’s mountaintop feeder, catch the birds and band their legs according to location, sex, age and more.For more information on Sage Tutoring, visit or contact Carla Cammarata at (970) 368.3135 or

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