Two owls in the Genus Strix populate North America. The first of these, the Barred Owl, is highly adaptable, common throughout the eastern United States and much of Canada, and in the process of expanding its range. The second, the  Spotted Owl, is sedentary, rare, and specialized, requiring very specific habitat to survive. The two species are very closely related and in fact hybridize where their territories overlap. The barred owl, however, has about three inches on its finicky relative. Given these facts, were you to wager on which species might be more successful in competing for scarce habitat in northern California, which would you choose? Obviously, you should bet on the guys with the guns.

Jon Christensen at The Uneasy Chair commented recently on an absolutely astonishing owl story from the Associated Press. Essentially, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are so concerned that barred owls are displacing the endangered northern spotted owls that they’ve designed what they call an experiment to determine whether the spotted owls can thrive without the competition. Their ingenious plan is to eliminate the competition the old fashioned way:

ARCATA, California (AP) — Federal scientists are planning to shoot a small number of barred owls they say are crowding out the threatened spotted owl in northern California — an experiment that could lead to killing thousands of the larger owls on the West Coast.

Scientists said the “removal” experiment would be the best way to quickly determine whether barred owls are pushing spotted owls toward extinction. If successful, officials would then consider expanding the program.

Obviously, the northern spotted owl has clout. This scourge of the lumber industry has been a focal point of the Pacific Northwest forest debate since it was Federally listed as a threatened species in July of 1990. With so much invested in this fragile raptor, it makes sense that it now receives extraordinary protection.  After all, if the government wouldn’t let corporations kill off the northern spotted owl, it can hardly afford to let nature do it. But that’s exactly what seems to be happening here?

Since I’m neither an ornithologist nor a journalist, my opinion is simply that of an interested layperson. The full article presents all of the information about this project that I’ve been able to uncover. Nonetheless, the USFWS plan seems awfully flawed. First of all, the idea that culling any number of barred owls, a well-established and numerous species, will hold back the inevitable tide is preposterous. The April 20, 2005 News-Review reported that Eric Forsman, a Forest Service spotted owl biologist, said that killing off barred owls was unlikely to help the spotted owl because the territory is so large and there is nothing to stop new barred owls from moving in from Canada. Those are the words of a spotted owl biologist. We haven’t even heard from the barred owl camp yet.

Second, it is painfully unclear what kind of habitat these two species are clashing over. Spotted owls are best suited to multilayer old-growth forest, at least 100 years old but preferably more than 200 years old. Were dense old-growth forest not diminished by at least 90% in the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl would undoubtedly be secure from the bullying of the bigger barred owl. But in the absence of old-growth, many spotted owls are forced to nest in second-growth forest. This, if I understand correctly, is where the two species clash. When they clash, the barred owl wins. So, in what kind of habitat will this culling be conducted?

Tom Anderson of the splendid Long Island Sound blog, Sphere wondered why barred owls were “migrating” across the Great Plains and whether they qualified as invasives. On the former point, the AP article is inaccurate. The barred owls pushing into California are coming from the north, not the east. This bird of prey’s swoop from the Canadian boreal to the Golden State’s tall timber can’t be classified as an irruption. The barred owl is not by any stretch an invasive species either. It hasn’t been transplanted or released recklessly into the wild. The very changes in the composition of Pacific Northwest forests that have placed the spotted owl in such a perilous position have enabled the surer Strix to incrementally expand its range. This is nature at work. We may have set the table by allowing extractive industries to dramatically destabilize the ecology of the region, but once habitat changes, the species mix has to follow. Human industry on a large scale has created conditions that benefit adaptive avians rather than those dependent on a specific, dwindling habitat. Shooting twenty, two hundred, or even two thousand owls cannot possibly alter that grim fact.

These sorry scientists have their permits and their shotguns, the sanctioned tool of those wishing to take (kill) migratory birds for depredation control purposes, as described in Title 50, Volume 1. Part 20, Sec. 21.41 of the Code of Federal Regulations. What they seem to lack is the common sense to realize that, while Big Lumber might fear the firepower of the federales, the barred owl won’t, pardon the pun, give a hoot.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.