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Not everyone gets shipped a cooler full of dead owls, but Alyssa Johnson isn't everyone. 

An environmental educator at the Montezuma Audubon Center, Johnson is bringing a whole new level of programming to the local bird branch — dissection. With about 30 dead barred owls at her disposal, Johnson will be offering a workshop in March for people to participate in (or just watch) as the bird's anatomy is examined.

"There's a lot of potential to learn from it," she said. "I'm inviting people if they want to just come and watch, they're more than welcome, but I also have dissection kits and birds and gloves, so everyone can explore with gloves if they want to, because it's a very unique thing. Everyone has a fascination with biology, and you don't very often get to do something like this outside of school."

Johnson, who taught owl dissection at Finger Lakes Community College prior to working at the Audubon center, said it took some convincing to bring the program to her new job. The organization, she said, typically focuses its events on living birds through bird watches and counts, or presentations by rehabilitators and the like. 

But there's another side to bird science that's important to tell, Johnson said, and for this story, it starts in Oregon.

Barred owls are native to the eastern United States, but over the last century or so, their territory has crept west.

David Simon, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center in Corvallis, Oregon, said that as people have planted more trees in the Great Plains region, barred owls have slowly moved into the new neighborhoods.

While their deep-set eyes and heart-shaped face may be endearing to some, and their calls of "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all," are distinct, those calls are not so welcome in Oregon. That's because barred owls are outcompeting the native and endangered spotted owl.

Barreds have become so aggressive toward their spotted cousins that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has deemed them as threatening to the endangered bird as habitat loss. They're so gutsy that the barreds even try to take down animals as big as skunks. Johnson has learned this by the distinct odor some of them tend to have on the dissection table.

As the spotteds get pushed out from their nesting areas, the population is getting older and older, Simon added. There are fewer youngsters to keep the species's future bright.

The USGS, USFWS and the U.S. Forest Service began an experiment in 2015, shooting barred owls that did not have babies. Since then, Simon said, they've removed about 1,200 owls. The USFWS is continuously analyzing the experiment to see if spotted owls are making a rebound, and will evaluate whether to continue it in the coming years. 

Simon said from the beginning they decided the barred owl bodies would be used for scientific purposes. 

"Our freezer is filling up," Simon said. "We have a lot of owls, so we have been sending specimens to museums and universities, and other institutions for various purposes."

That includes Finger Lakes Community College, and now the Montezuma Audubon Center. But the Audubon's shipment was nearly botched, Johnson said, due to the federal government shutdown at the end of January. 

Eagerly tracking her overnight cooler of owls on Thursday, Jan. 18, the package was delayed in Tennessee due to a storm. The weekend added another delay, and then Monday morning, it arrived. Johnson had plans to store the more than two dozen birds in a freezer at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge offices. But with the shutdown, she had no way to get into the refuge buildings.

After calling around educational institutions and anywhere else she could think, asking, "Do you have room to store 40 dead owls?" Hobart and William Smith Colleges saved the day in the interim. 

Safely stored away now, the owls are ready to be used for educational purposes not only through their anatomy, but also for how they got there.

"This is real science that is going on," Johnson said about the barred owl removal out west. "This is happening all over the place, over the country, animals are being removed. Wildlife management is happening, and might as well talk about it and explain why, and secondarily, we get to invite people to learn about these dead birds."

She also hopes her programming will spark connections between participants and the environment, and hopes to make people care more about wildlife and nature. Though it will be perhaps a bit sad for those who prefer bird watching, the program allows barreds to serve a second purpose as teachers, perhaps inspiring a future generation to tend to and save the creatures we have.

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Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.


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