Things you may not know, but should:

1.) There is an International Festival of Owls.

2.) They give out a “Champion of Owls” award.

3.) This year, that award was presented to Denver Holt, a Montana scientist and bird guide and thus, if I may be presumptuious, my homeboy.

saw-whet owl

I like to imagine his expression was something like this upon receiving the award.

Holt founded the Owl Research Institute, an organization that focuses on long-term studies of a variety of species of owls, as well as their prey species and environments. The ORI maintains a research station in the Mission Valley of Western Montana, neighboring the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge.

Why Ninepipe? Turns out, there’s hardly a better place in America to have as your home base, if you’re doing owl research. Montana has records of fifteen species of owls, including Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl, Eastern and Western Screech Owl, and such heart-pounders as Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl. Of these, fourteen species breed – more than any other U.S. state. Big skies, apparently, provide lots of room for silent wings. The northerly latitude and variety of habitats, from prarie-dog town to confierous mountain forests, don’t hurt either.

This year, the attention-getters have been the Snowy Owls, which have had a significant irruption all over the U.S. but a particularly outstanding one here in western Montana. Last year, a Great Gray was spotted hanging out overlooking a schoolyard. Boreal Owls come down from their mountain retreats to winter in the valleys. Saw-whet and Long-eared seem to be just business as usual.

And yet, I must confess: I myself haven’t managed to see an owl since I moved out here, although I’ve heard them plenty. To be fair, only a handfull of times in my life have I seen an owl on my own — usually when they were being excessively obliging, like the Eastern Screech Owl that took up residence in the pine tree by a window of the Olde Homestead. My luck with owls seems to mainly come from getting someone to point them out to me.

Perhaps, in the future, someone like Denver Holt.

Saw-whet Owl photo by Todd Zino

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at