abcg August 4, 2020 0

Unlocking the Secrets of the World’s Largest Owl

A scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Jonathan Slaght, has written a memoir on his efforts to study and conserve the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni), an enormous and endangered owl species in Russia. Called Owls of the Eastern Ice, the book is published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. In addition to being a published author, Slaght is a dedicated wildlife biologist and fulfills the role of WCS Russia and Northeast Asia Coordinator, helping to achieve biodiversity conservation and protect critical habitats for owls and other key species in the region.

Weighing up to nearly twelve pounds and with a six-foot wingspan, the fish owl is the largest owl in the world, and also, until recently, one of the least studied. The work of Slaght and his Russian collaborators Sergey Surmach of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Sergey Avdeyuk of the Amur-Ussuri Centre for Avian Biodiversity, changed that for the benefit of the species’ conservation. In 2006, they teamed up to conduct an ambitious five-year project to reveal how fish owls use their habitat—and therefore learn how to develop a conservation plan to protect them.

The team spent a total of fifteen months in the Russian forests from 2006-2010, nearly all of that time in the dead of winter, with temperatures reaching the minus 30s Fahrenheit. They lived in the close quarters of a wood-heated truck while they tried to find, catch, and band fish owls that lived along the rivers nearby. This work required a lot of patience and improvisation.

“No one had really caught an adult fish owl for science before,” remembers Slaght, “so we were flying blind, with limited materials, and in really adverse conditions. It took us a long time to figure out what we were doing.”  

The work was not without its adventures. They shared these remote forests with endangered Amur tigers, brown bears, and a host of subtropical Asian species at the extreme north of their global ranges, such as yellow-throated martens and raccoon dogs. The team was repeatedly stranded by blizzards and floods, bathed in radioactive hot springs, and at one point given shelter by a nine-fingered hermit. All for science.

The results of this project have shone a new light on this secretive species, and continue to inform ongoing fish owl conservation practices. Among other actions, Slaght and his collaborators provide fish owls with nest boxes to breed in, and work with a logging company to reduce negative impacts of timber harvest on fish owl populations.

The efforts described in Owls of the Eastern Ice were administered by the Wildlife Conservation Society with generous support from the Amur-Ussuri Centre for Avian Biodiversity, Bell Museum, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Denver Zoo, Disney Conservation Fund, International Owl Society, Minnesota Zoo Ulysses S. Seal Conservation Grant Program, National Aviary, University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, and USDA Forest Service.

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