HERMISTON -- Mike Gregg gently clamped a small metal band on the left leg of a yellow-eyed baby burrowing owl cupped in the hands of Don Gillis, then fanned out its brown and white-flecked wing.
"This one is ready to fly, Don," Gregg, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said as he placed a 2-gallon plastic bucket filled with dirt back over the artificial nest where he'd extracted the little owl.
Gillis, natural and cultural resources manager at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, turned and walked 10 feet to the edge of a plastic pipe jutting from the ground that led to the owlets' manmade home. Instead of lowering the bird to the ground, he opened his hands.
Abruptly, it flapped its wings and took what could have been its maiden flight before landing about 100 feet away amid sagebrush, bitterbrush and cheatgrass. Gillis grinned, then joined Gregg in looking for a second artificial burrow nearby for other babies to band.
In all, the pair captured and banded nine owlets on this windy day at the northeast Oregon Army depot, where a burgeoning success story is unfolding in the effort to reverse a steady decline in the number of burrowing owls.
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