Montana State University

Owls wow crowds, showcase natural setting at MSU

July 24, 2014 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Four great horned owls have taken up residence at Montana Hall in the heart of the Montana State University campus. University students and employees say they’re fun to watch and also provide evidence of a robust campus ecosystem. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.Four great horned owls have taken up residence at Montana Hall in the heart of the Montana State University campus. University students and employees say they're fun to watch and also provide evidence of a robust campus ecosystem. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.Four great horned owls have taken up residence at Montana Hall in the heart of the Montana State University campus. University students and employees say they're fun to watch and also provide evidence of a robust campus ecosystem. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Four great horned owls have taken up residence at Montana Hall in the heart of the Montana State University campus. University students and employees say they’re fun to watch and also provide evidence of a robust campus ecosystem. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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It’s common these days to see people gazing intently toward the second floor of Montana Hall on the Montana State University campus. That’s because a family of owls has taken up residence on the iconic structure in the heart of campus, attracting crowds and showcasing the university’s vibrant natural setting.

The four owls, collectively known as a parliament, can often be seen perched above the north entrance to Montana Hall, as well as near a fire escape on the building’s east side. At least one owl has even been seen peering into several of the second-floor windows.

The four are great horned owls, according to E.J. Hook, environmental services manager at MSU. He believes two are adults, while the other two are owlets. Hook added that while the owlets currently appear as a similar size to adults, they are identified by different markings.

The great horned owl – which is recognizable because of the feather tufts on its head – is the most common owl of the Americas, according to information published by National Geographic. The adaptable birds live from the Arctic to South America and can be found both in towns and in the country. Great horned owls often nest in tree holes, stumps, caves or abandoned nests. The carnivores frequently hunt at night and feed on a variety of animals, including rabbits, squirrels, domestic birds, falcons, other owls and smaller game.

Dave Willey, a research assistant professor in the MSU Department of Ecology, said great horned owls have been nesting on campus for more than two decades, with frequent annual sightings around Lewis, Wilson and Traphagen Halls. MSU’s campus includes numerous small forest patches that make ideal nesting sites for the nocturnal predators, he added. Those forest patches, along with building structures, provide excellent nurseries for raising young.

At MSU, the owls’ fame has spread as they have delighted countless people.

“I think they’re really pretty, and they’re a good asset to our community,” said John Richardson, an MSU alumnus who now works in Montana Hall as an evaluator in the MSU Office of the Registrar.

Richardson first noticed the owls several months ago in a tree near Montana Hall. Then, throughout the last month, they began to perch on the building itself, he said. That’s when people really began to take note of them, he added.

“At first there were just one or two people (looking at the owls),” Richardson said. “Now there are crowds of people there. I’ve noticed people coming with high-powered cameras to take pictures of the owls, too, which is awesome.”

Hook and Willey noted that having owls on campus is an indication of a robust campus ecosystem.

“It means we have all the ingredients necessary to provide habitat for owls – food, shelter, water,” Hook said. “Since owls are nearer to the top of the food chain, this indicates that lower levels of the food chain also have a substantive presence on campus…. It’s good news that they’re here.”

According to Willey, previous studies of owl pellets have shown an interesting variety of prey on campus, including Spruce Squirrels, Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, Meadow Voles, Cottontail Rabbits, pigeons, magpies and skunks.   

“Our campus hosts a fascinating and diverse ecological system that can be easy to overlook,” Willey said. “The distinctive owls, with their association to wisdom, create a pretty cool atmosphere for Montana Hall, reminding us of how awesome it is to live and work in the Northern Rocky Mountains.”

Erica Dunn, an MSU student majoring in business and psychology who also works in the President’s Office, said she loves seeing the owls.

“I just think they’re fun,” Dunn said. “And it’s really neat that as a university we’ve created an ecosystem that can support a bird like that.”

Dunn added that the President’s Office is currently seeking suggestions for names for the owls. Ideas should be emailed to Dunn at ericadunn@montana.edu by 5 p.m. Friday, July 25.

Contact: E.J. Hook, MSU environmental services manager, (406) 994-7840 or edward.hook1@montana.edu