Birds of a feather 

Bird expert Denver Holt creates a sweet nest for studying owls

At the Ninepipes Center for Wildlife Research and Education near Charlo, the list of amenities meant to aid and comfort visiting scientists, students and curious naturalists is virtually inexhaustible. The jagged peaks of the Mission Mountains frame the eastern skyline, intermittently animated with the fickle clouds of late spring. The valley floor is festooned with wildflowers, peppering the landscape with blue, white, and yellows amid an array of green sedges, rushes and native grasses.

And, of course, there are the birds: Ospreys stoically perched in nests the size of bathtubs, kestrels on power lines, harriers wheeling over fields, northern shovelers plying prairie potholes, gulls cruising across one-lane roads, a pair of orange northern orioles, flitting about in the cottonwood trees.

Then there’s the down-home appeal of the research station itself, once an old farm house. The incongruous melody of vintage ’70s soul floats in the mountain air through a stereo system the envy of any adolescent audiophile. And there are the books, thousands of them, and not just about birds. The seeds of an extensive natural history, anthropology and biology library are found on these shelves.

Not a bad place to be a bird biologist, certainly enough avian life forms to fill notebooks with data in one of the most scenic valleys on the planet. Denver Holt, local owl advocate and founder of the Owl Research Institute and Ninepipes Center, has received much praise from his peers for his vision of placing a research station here, accolades he often ignores or politely deflects.

“What we really get the most compliments about,” comments Holt dryly in a thick Boston accent, “is the size of the bathroom in this place. Visiting researchers seem to really appreciate the big bathroom after a long day in the field.”

What kind of scientist appeals to his colleagues’ need to live large in the time they log in the john? Those looking for answers might attend the first Montana Birder’s Festival this Friday in Polson, where Holt will be keynote speaker. In the meantime, it’s clear that Holt has a knack for knowing what people like, a gift he applies wholeheartedly in his mission to get owls and people to know each other better.

The Owl Research Institute began in 1988 as Holt’s alternative to the hard-scrabble existence of the seasonal wildlife biologist, a station in life Holt became disillusioned with years earlier. His predicament was a familiar one to those seeking careers in the natural sciences: either scrape by on a series of decent-paying but temporary contracts, or ascend the hierarchy of academia, which increasingly means cashing in muddy boots for a seat behind a desk.

For Holt, the latter was never an option. Encouraged by support from the Craighead Institute (another Montana non-profit) he formed the Owl Research Institute and has been riding a wave of good fortune that has taken him to the Arctic, Central America, Japan, Tanzania and Great Britain. Holt and the Owl Institute have been featured on the BBC, CNN and NBC, as well as in numerous documentaries. More importantly, Holt has convinced, coerced and cajoled a diverse and frequently improbable group of volunteers to become involved with owls and their habitats: loggers, ranchers, athletes, British royalty, to name a few.

Beneath all the hats that Holt wears as director, naturalist, conservationist and teacher, the one he takes most seriously is scientist and researcher. Although Holt seems as much at home at Charlie B’s shooting a little stick and drinking beer, and in spite of the skepticism Holt’s work is sometimes greeted with in academic circles, he has taken great pains to become a thorough and meticulous collector of data.

“The students who come up here and work with me call me anal, which I take as a compliment,” smiled Holt. “As far as my reputation at the university, there are a number of people there who consider me a colleague, but that hasn’t always been the case. The only thing I’ll say is that we spend far too much time in this profession tearing each other apart.”

Holt paused thoughtfully as he occasionally does when giving the quick tour of the facility where he and other ORI staff keep their offices. “I guess the goal with all this is that when I get to be sixty or seventy I’d like to be good at this. It takes so many years to really develop the skill to really know anything. You have to be a jack of all trades and master of more than a few.”

For Holt, possessing the humility and drive of a focused graduate student is not a career move. After 15 years of continuous study of Montana’s long-eared owls, nine years of snowy owl study in the Arctic, publishing articles and book chapters, and travelling the world, his reputation is hardly in need of cultivation. What seems to drive him is the work itself, the predicament of a profession where answering one question only leads to hundreds more.

A few months ago, trapping long-eared owls at winter’s end, it was apparent Holt intended to continue with his first love, fieldwork, as long as there were owls to count. Holt patiently explained to a group of Audubon trekkers the adaptations of the long-eared owl, then quietly held the mysterious wild bird, letting onlookers marvel into the bright mystery of her giant yellow eyes. Efficiently and gently, he recorded her rudimentary size, weight and estimated her age, then walked the owl down to the ravine it had been inhabiting. He seemed a man who deftly negotiates the human world but knows where the utility of his skill ends.

If he could, Holt might prefer to take the crowd at Friday’s Birding Festival to that ravine, preferring to let the owls do the talking.

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