State College Bird Club

February 22, 2017

State College Bird Club Meeting, February 22, 2017

Presiding: Diane Bierly

Recording: Debra Grim

Attendees: 37

Checklist:  xx species reported


Treasurer report (Jean Miller): $167 in January

Field trips:

Karl Streidieck brought a raven’s nest to the meeting constructed from barbed wire. (See attached photo taken by Susan Smith.)

Laura Jackson has bird-friendly coffee for sale, grown by Honduran coffee farmer Emilio Garcia.

Greg Grove is offering copies of Birding in Central Pennsylvania for $7.

Tussey Mountain Hawk Watch, the best Golden Eagle site in the Appalachians, will be staffed from this weekend (February 25) until the end of April. Days with south or southeast winds are usually the best.

The second annual Earth Day Birding Classic will be held April 22-23, noon to noon. This fundraising event is cosponsored by the Environmental Studies program at Penn State Altoona and Juniata Valley Audubon Society. To participate, register your team by April 15 at

Next meeting: March 22: Former Bird Club President Nick Kerlin will present information regarding the ongoing bird banding project at the Penn State Arboretum.


Speaker: Clay Lutz, Wildlife Diversity Biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Southcentral Region.

Clay’s primary responsibility at the PGC is to improve wildlife habitat for species of greatest conservation need by providing technical assistance to private landowners. He majored in Ecology and in Environmental Science at Juniata College, where he researched the nesting ecology of map turtles. Clay is pursuing a Master’s in Wildlife Science at Penn State.

Barn Owls, although globally distributed (even found on remote islands), are rare and declining in number. Their preferred habitat in Pennsylvania are grasslands and farms. They nest in structures; there are no recent records of Barn Owls in Pennsylvania nesting in natural cavities. The PA Breeding Bird Atlas shows that this species is restricted mainly to the southeast and southcentral portions of the state.

The reason for the decline is habitat loss, as agricultural land use is changing from pasture to corn and soybeans. A conservation initiative of 2005 calls for:
1.    Secure nesting and foraging habitat, which includes provision of nest boxes.
2.    Assessment of Barn Owl distribution and abundance, implemented by checks of known nest sites and searches for reports of new nests.
3.    Evaluation of habitat use and food resources. Pellet analysis shows that 75% of the diet consists of meadow voles, and 95% is grassland mammals. Farm fields tend to be too bare to provide these needs. Plentiful food initiates nesting.
4.    Improvement of nesting and foraging habitat. This involves conversations with landowners. Farmers are often too busy for this, but they are receptive because they value Barn Owls.
5.    Assessment of dispersal and lifespan, which averages about 15 months for Barn Owls. One banded owl, however, reached five years of age. Of more than 950 banded nestlings, only 64 were known to return to the same area as adults. One owl banded in Aden Troyer’s hometown in Ohio was later found in Juniata County, and the body of one Pennsylvania Barn Owl was recovered from a Florida beach, but the median dispersal distance appears to be about 73 miles, in no particular direction. It is thought that the juveniles remain in their parents’ territory until fall.

Barn Owl necropsies have not regularly checked for West Nile Virus, but this may be added to the procedure in future.

The top predator of Barn Owls is the Great Horned Owl. Increasing the forest area near farms increases the likelihood of Great Horned Owl attacks. However, nonhuman predators rarely are the cause of heavy losses in populations of prey. For example, news reports that hawks are eating all the grouse and other game animals in Huntingdon County are unlikely to be true. The number one cause of death in Barn Owls appears to be starvation.

Higher commodity prices has resulted in fewer renewals of CREP programs, which has impacted the habitat for Barn Owls.

Nest boxes do not have a recommended minimum distance above the ground, but probably higher locations are safer from nest predators. Barn activity does not generally seem to disturb nesting Barn Owls.
If food is abundant, Barn Owl families can share territory.

Hacking has not been tried as a method to increase populations, but is considered risky.

We don’t actually know what the baseline population for Barn Owls is. They became plentiful in the mid-twentieth century because of farming practices that favored them, but now they are struggling, as are other grassland species.

Minutes by Debra Grim