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MLA Full: "Talk Show: Owls and Pigeons." YouTube, uploaded by SciShow, 6 March 2014,
MLA Inline: (SciShow, 2014)
APA Full: SciShow. (2014, March 6). Talk Show: Owls and Pigeons [Video]. YouTube.
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Chicago Full: SciShow, "Talk Show: Owls and Pigeons.", March 6, 2014, YouTube, 17:37,
Hank talks with Owl Research Institute founder Denver Holt. Then Jessi introduces the bird lovers to a pigeon. Warning: watch your ears for wing flapping into the microphone.

Owl Research Institute:

Animal Wonders:

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 Introduction with Denver Holt (0:00)


HANK GREEN: Hello, and welcome to the Sci Show Talk Show, the Sci Show episode where we talk about things with cool people. Today, we're talking with Denver Holt, who is the founder and director of the Owl Research Institute. Hard core, old school science right here on my couch right now. We're really pleased to have you!

DENVER HOLT: Thanks, appreciate being here.

HG: So, you have been studying owls for about as long as I've been alive.

DH: Is that right? [laughter] Well yeah, it's been a while, it's been thirty years or so, and, yeah it's good, we've got a number of major projects and it's a good group of animals, a very charismatic group of animals. They're very popular, you know, in the world of animals, owls are right up there. You have things like owls, penguins, whales, koala bears, panda bears, a few other things, and they're probably one of the most popular groups of animals in the world.

HG: Well, I have a couple of times in my life come across an owl in the wild and it was a very special thing. It's very unexpected, especially when it happens in the day time. They do seem a little bit other worldly.

DH: Which ones did you come across? Did you recognize the species?

HG: I've seen Great Horned Owls--I grew up in Florida--and I think I saw a a Long-eared Owl once at Nine Pipes, the wildlife refuge.

DH: Were you in our study area?

HG: I don't know if I was in your study area... [Denver laughing] You have a study area— you study there..?

DH: Yeah, we have a study up there, the Long-eared Owls. 

HG: I went there with my wife for Valentine's day and we were just walking around, it was like, right at a pull off, and there's a tree right there, and we were walking by and it was looking at us.

DH: Oh that's cool! Yeah, we've had a study on the Long-eared Owls in Missoula and the Mission Valley for 27 years now and I think that's probably the longest year-round study of the species in North America and perhaps the world.

 Q1: So, you've studied owls year-round and continuously for 30 years? (1:58)

HG: Wow. So, you study them year round and continuously for 30 years--having that kind of uninterrupted data is so extremely important.

DH: It is, you know? When you introduced me as old fashioned, umm, maybe you were right. [laughter] We still go out in the field, and we still conduct long term research, and those are the things that are going to stand the test of time. We're in a world now where people don't venture out as much as they used to in wildlife biology. But we started as a field oriented group and we've remained a field oriented group, so we have data sets that run 15, 20, 25 plus years and we'll continue to do that. That's the only way we're gonna be able to see trends in populations, what they're doing through space and time.

Also, you know, these days the buzz word is always 'climate change'. When [we] started these long term studies, [we weren't] thinking of climate change. Now it's part of it, it so [we] can do it in retrospect and go back and now you can go look at climate data in relation to the long term data, and maybe it'll add a bit more meaning to it. It doesn't mean it's the cause and effect or anything, but at least you can look at it and maybe see some correlations.

 Q2: How do you find an owl? (3:00)

HG: So what are the mechanics of studying owls? I mean, they are pretty seclusive creatures, it can be difficult to find them. When you go out in the field, what are you looking for--how do you find an owl?

DH: A long time ago, when we were learning it was a little more difficult, now it's easier for us.

One of the things I think that everyone knows about owls is that they hoot in two. We call them 'hooters' and 'tooters' and 'whistlers' and all that stuff, but the big ones tend to hoot and the little ones tend to toot or whistle, so you develop these survey techniques using their primary vocalizations--and generally it's males trying to attract females, you know, same old story, different group of animals... [laughter]

So, the vocalizations: the big ones are hooty and the little ones are tooty. You might here something like [sustained gargled whistle] which would be an eastern screech owl, or maybe you would hear a [distinct evenly pitched/lengthened whistles]  which would be a Saw-whet. So you set up roots, you play the tapes, or you listen, you have these protocols. Then when you get in an area where you're hearing the hooting, the tooting and the whistling, and you identify the species and then you come back there, and if they continue to do it for a period of time in the spring with the onset of the breeding season, then you concentrate your efforts to looks for nests. We kind of can bypass that now, but we developed all that in the early years.

HG: So you can bypass that now because you know the nest locations?

DH: Because we know, yeah. We concentrate on those areas now for long term research. But if we were to start it again, if we went to... Guatemala, we'd say, "Okay, now we've got to start it all over again," and kind of learn where the owls are.

 Q3: Are there a lot of people that want to do this kind of research? (4:30)

HG: I can't imagine that people don't wanna do this. I know it's hard, I know you gotta get up early in the morning, and it's cold, and you gotta get your butt out there... But, there must be people who want to do this kind of research...?

DH: Oh, yeah there's tons of people who wanna do it. Again--I think you alluded to it a moment or two ago--the allure of the owl, there's just something about it. Certain groups of animals, as I said, are very appealing, but one of the things about owls that people love is they kinda look like us! You know, [gesturing] we have a symmetrical face, forward facing eyes, a nose down-curved, the ears, the hair that could be feathers... There's a certain allure in owls and it's been there since the cave men did cave drawings in France back in Pleistocene or something like that. So yeah, there is their allure so we have tons and tons of people that want to join us in the fields, whether they're students or adult volunteers...

 Q4: Are there opportunities for students who want to have a similar career path to yours? (5:21)

HG: As far as the way that wildlife research is going these days, do you think there are opportunities for students to get involved in this and have a similar career path to you?

DH: Oh, for sure! Jobs are limited unfortunately, but you know I kinda was, you might think I was a pioneer in a sense. Looking at the opportunities, I didn't want to be stuck in an office, and the traditional homes of research have always been federal, state, and university, and just, you know, I had a lot of friends in it. But they're kind of like, office bound, and I didn't want to do that, so I started the Owl Institute, which has been very successful and very well known around the world now.
So my encouragement then, to others, is: start your own! You can do research in your backyard and, you look at the privatization of many things in the world, and private industry can be very competitive with federal and state industry and things of that sort, so start your own research institute in Missoula, Montana— it's a great place to exemplify that. If you really look around here, you can see other groups that have started that with their own research institutes, whether it's wildlife or something else, and are working for themselves, and can be very competitive in the market. Things like that. So I always encourage that. Do what you want, be passionate, and go for it, you know?

 Introducing Jessi and Her Special Guest (6:33)

HG: Fantastic! Um... The good news is, we do have a guest that we are going to share, now. The bad news is it's not an owl. I hope you didn't think it was going to be an owl. We don't have any of those.

DH: An owl? You don't have an owl? [laughter]

HG:  We do have birds to share with you! Jessi, from Animal Wonders--I don't know if you've met her... She has brought some feathered friends for us to spend some time with. You may have heard them rustling around behind us.

DH: I did. [laughter]

HG: I think when you made you owl call they were like, "What was that?" Maybe a little worried, they are some natural prey of owls. So let's check these guys out.

 About Pigeons (7:13)

[Jessi Knudsen Castañeda joins Hank Green and Denver Holt. She is holding a pigeon.]

HG: Jessi, who have you brought us?

Jessi Knudsen Castañeda: This is Cornelius.

HG: Oh my gosh!

JKC: [laughter] Cornelius is a pigeon. Do you know where all pigeons came from?

[Cornelius flaps his wings, but Jessi keeps him in her hands by holding his feet.]

HG: Oh, Cornelius! Uh, pigeons come from... Pigeonia.... a fictional... er... That's right, right?

[Denver and Jessi laugh]

HG: No, I don't know where pigeons come from!

JKC: The rock pigeon: Africa. They all originated from there, and, when you think of a pigeon you think of a grey body with those black stripes on it, black bars on its wings. But pigeons are actually really neat because they have the most breeds out of any domesticated animal.

HG: So, they're domesticated? Well yeah, I guess so...

JKC: Well, the rock pigeon has been domesticated, and we call those fancy pigeons. And then there is between eight hundred and eleven hundred different breeds...

HG: That's a lot of fancy pigeons!

JKC: ...of pigeons. There are so many of them! And they break them down into these groups, you know, some have, you know, they focus on... the crazy tails [pantomimes a large, fanned tail on Cornelius]--those are fan-tailed pigeons--and there's ones that focus on like, um... how they can like puff out their crest [pantomimes a puffed chest], er, their chest--their crop.

HG: Mmhm. And they have some with just, completely ridiculous, inside-out feathers that must be uncomfortable...

JKC: Yeah! they have these [gesturing] ruffled ones on the chest, and all these...

HG: [pointing at Cornelius] We've got feathery feet here...

JKC: So this is a Duchess pigeon.

HG: [in a deep voice] Duchess!

JKC: Duchess, and she's actually a crossbred Duchess pigeon, and she's crossbred with, um, a mixed breed... which we don't know what it is. But yeah, the Duchess pigeon has these [in a high voice, petting Cornelius] pretty feathers on her feet... and we have some-

HG: Completely useless!

JKC: [laughter] So not good for anything in the wild! What happens is-

HG: Well I guess, snowy owls have feathers on their feet...

DH: They do, they've evolved that for thermoregulation.

HG: I guess if you're, you know, living in snow all the time...

DH: [gesturing to Cornelius] This is more for show, I'm sure.

JKC: Yeah. Yeah, this is for show. If they were living in really cold climates all the time and they couldn't regulate their own temperature that way, um, that might help out the snowy owls. But these guys were specifically bred... There's pigeons that live in the cold weather that don't have feathered feet. 

HG: Right.

JKC: What's really hard about it is that they get new feathers coming in, that we call blood feathers, it is like a little straw [gesturing] to their vein, and the feather is growing inside, and if they just step on it in just a little wrong...

HG: Ugh, you've got a hole, in your body... [cringes]

JKC: They break it and then, you know, they'll bleed. So it's... Not a very handy thing... to have...

HG: No. Kind of dumb.

JKC: Yeah. [laughs] So, yeah it's an... artificially selected, um, trait that we give them.

HG: I see so many pigeons, and they can be a bit of a pest sometimes...

JKC: Definitely.

HG: ...but, this is a beautiful animal.

JKC: Isn't she pretty!

HG: So iridescent, and so many different shapes that you're, oh, taking you self into... [mimics the bird's head movements]

JKC: Up and down up, and down...

HG: So fluffy!

JKC: Yeah! So they can have that iridescence, they can have green or purple, and she had a little bit of both. [pointing to bird] Some will have just green iridescence, and some just purple. Her beak is a little bit shorter then a regular rock pigeon would have, and she doesn't have those bars... Her mother was tan, and her father was white... pure white.

HG: Hm.

JKC: The mother had 4-inch feathers on her feet! [laughs] They are pretty neat. 

 Pigeon Tricks! (10:16

JKC: She's our show pigeon and she actually knows how to fly from hand to hand. You you like to see if she will fly to your hand?

HG: Yes!

JKC: You have some food there...

HG: Yes I have some food in my hand.

JKC: Alright, you ready?

HG: Let me see.

[Cornelius lands on Hank's and and eats the food] 

HG: Oh hi! Well, nice to meet you.

JKC: Now you close your hand...

HG: [to Cornelius]  Let's see if I can get you to go... go home...

[Jessi opens her hand with food in it as Hank closes his]

HG: Oooh, it's over there!

[Cornelius flies to Jessi]

JKC: There she goes!

HG: [laughs] Trained!

JKC: She is trained, and let's see if she will do this, I don't know is she will. Can I stand up?

HG: Yeah! Sure. [to cameramen] Anybody can track her?

[Jessi stands with Cornelius]

JKC: Alright, let's see. [whispering to Cornelius and giving him a hand signal] You can do it... Go... You can do it... You can do it... Go!

[Cornelius flies in a circle behind Jessi and lands in her hand again]

JKC: Yay!

[all laugh]

JKC: Good work, Cornelius! [to Denver] Alright, do you want to have her fly to you hand?

DH: Oh, yeah... [laughs]

JKC: Alright, you just hold you hand up-

DH: It's not a very far flight, you know what I mean... [laughs]

[Cornelius flies to Denver]

JKC: Just a little one!

DH: Nice feathers on the feet... Yeah, very nice.

JKC: Now, Hank, you open your hand, and you close your hand, Denver.

DH: I just close it?

JKC: Just close it on up!

DH: [to Cornelius] Mm, sorry buddy, turn around...

[Cornelius flies to Hank.]

JKC: There she goes.

HG: [to Cornelius, in funny voice] Mm, nice to have you a visit... Gonna have to give you back to Jessi, because otherwise, what's going to happen...?

[Cornelius pecks Hank's hand]

HG: Oh, that was just my-

JKC: [quickly takes bird away from Hank] Out! Out of food...

HG: That was... that was not food, that was just my skin.

JKC: [laughs] She was just eating.

HG: [laughs] There was nothing left!

JKC: [holding bird out for Hank to pet] You can feel her, she's actually really soft.

HG: Oh my! You're the softest thing! [personifying bird] "I hate that, stop doing that." [to Jessi] She's uh, not a fan of that.

JKC: [laughs] I know, she doesn't like it that much.

 More Pigeon & Owl Talk (11:46)

JKC: [holding bird out for Denver to pet] You want to pet her?

DH: Um, I don't know, uh... she's very nice... [pats bird]

[Jessi and Hank laugh]

JKC: You don't like pigeons?

DH: No, no, they're nice... I um... Uh, they're nice, I like them you know... Pigeon milk is, you know, important and... They look rather perky...and um, their iridescence is, you know... I was thinking about  structural coloration while you were talking about it. [laughter] And then I was also thinking about the great horned owls, this would be, you know, a good meal for a snowy owl. A lot of people use pigeons to trap snowy owls...

JKC: Yes.

DH: the winter time, and so I was admiring the bird for that as well.

JKC: [laughs] They are a great food source for birds of prey, yes they are. Do you know how fast a snowy owl can fly?

DH: No I don't, um... But I know there is some observations of them tracking down peregrine falcons and flying after them and catching them, and killing them and eating them. But these guys can fly fast as heck too...

JKC: Wait, wait, wait. Peregrine falcons were killing the snowy owls?

DH: No, no the snowy owls track the peregrines, and kill them... But you know it doesn't happen very often. So they can fly pretty fast, is what I was trying to say. Pigeons are great fliers... Phenomenal fliers...

JKC: They can fly about 50 miles an hour... And there's... There's breeds that are, err, homing pigeons, which are really neat, and they can fly over a thousand miles to their... location, home...

DH: Yeah, that's pretty cool. I mean, I know they've done all the magnetic, you know, orientation in pigeons experiments indicating that they can use maybe, celestial signs of magnetic north, and things like that.

JKC: Yeah! They actually have a built up iron right on top of their beak there that they tie into the magnetic north.

DH: Yeah, it really is neat, you know.

HG: Fascinating. How? And wow... So do you know why we originally domesticated pigeons?

JKC: Uh, yeah! They were for message delivering.

Hank: So that, that was the original reason?

JKC: Yeah!

HG: Wow.

JKC: Well, and meat. Meat source too.

HG: Right! Yeah.

JKC: So I would say, actually, meat came first-

HG: That makes sense.

JKC: ...and then they realized, um-

HG: [to bird] You don't have a lot of meat on you, but it's not nothing.

JKC: Well, they don't eat the adults!

HG: Oh! What?! It's like a sardine, where you just put the whole thing in a tin, and... dissolved in olive oil...?

JKC: So, the delicacy--have you heard of squab?

HG: Yes. [Denver nods]

JKC: That's a teenage pigeon.

HG: Okay...

JKC: That is a pigeon right before it's starting to fledge. So its parents have put TONS of food into it...

HG: Right.

JKC: And it's just mostly breast.

HG: Interesting...

JKC: Mhm

HG: That's weird...

JKC: And it doesn't move around. It just sits in the nest all day, so it doesn't use its muscles so that's the most tender, and it's a delicacy! And so that's where we started farming them, and then we figured out that they could do this, uh, [gesturing] the homing thing, and then, um-

HG: But yeah, you're delivering, just like owls in Harry Potter deliver packages. In real life, the pigeons are the deliverers of the packages.

JKC: Owl would be really cool!

HG: Owl probably would carry a heavier load...

JKC: Maybe, yeah. Maybe.

HG: ...but, harder to train to fly a thousand miles to a specific location.

JKC: Definitely harder to train.

DH: Yeah. I know people train them, but I don't know if they use them in messaging. [laughter] Owls deliver their own magical message by their appearances in Harry Potter.

JKC: That's true. They're amazing animals, but, um... They're very difficult to train. 

HG: No, yeah...

JKC: They don't have the same level of capacity-

HG: Definitely prefer wildness, I think, owls. Do people have pet owls?

DH: You know that kinda came about speaking of Harry Potter, when, you know, all that came about and we did a piece for National Geographic back then, and everybody got a little doll--a snowy owl--if you joined National Geographic. Well, what happened here when that came out and the story came out is that, they were getting flooded with phone calls about, "How can we get a snowy owl as a pet?" You know, children all want snowy owls as pets, and it was just all over the place, you know? So it had to be addressed nationally. "No, you can't have snowy owls as pets, and for these reasons." So, it was just kind of interesting what became of it.

HG: Yeah.

 Conclusion & Credits (15:41)

HG: Cornelius, thank you for coming on the show. It was a pleasure to have you. You were a sweetheart. Umm, you can go relax. I wish we could have heard you cooing. [to Jessi] I love the sound of pigeons... I want my cellphone to make that noise. It's much more soothing than the noise my cellphone actually makes. [to Denver] Um... can you do a pigeon coo?

DH: [laughter] I don't know. [to Jessi] No, you're probably better at it then I am. I'm more of a hooter and a tooter.

JKC: [laughter] I love that! "Hooter and a tooter"! They go, [coos]

HG: Yeah, [kinda coos] Denver, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise, for coming out...

DH: Appreciate the opportunity, thank you.

HG: Really fascinated by the research you're doing. Thank you for doing and, keep it going. I want to see 130 years of constant data come out of this.

DH: I say, come join us! I'll take you out and show you how it happens, in the field.

HG: Great!

JKC: I really liked how you were talking about, you know, "do it yourself." You know, "if you're interested in something, pursue that. Pursue your passion," and, you know, "do it yourself." I really like that.

DH: That's an important thing that I think we forget that we can do here. Anywhere. It's... good to do. Thank you.

HG: [to audience] And thank you, for watching this episode of SciShow Talk Show. Jessi and Cornelius, you're awesome. If you want to check out Animal Wonders, there's a link to their YouTube channel in the description. If you want to learn more about the Owl Research Institute, you can go to They have live, streaming webcams during breeding season of owl nests, so you can see them in their natural habitat, doing their natural thing. And if you want to keep getting smarter with us here at SciShow, you can go to and subscribe.