Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Spotted owls

Late one night, back when I was a naturalist at Mount Saint Helens, the truck headlights illuminated a small bundle on the road. I pulled over to investigate, and to my surprise, it was a dead spotted owl. Like many good naturalists who find an interesting dead animal, I took it home and put it in the freezer.

Like a bad naturalist, I didn't report it immediately. Word got around, and the staff Wildlife Biologist showed up to confiscate my owl and deliver a stern lecture about the penalties of harboring both a raptor and an endangered species. I never saw Spotty again.

But happily I have have since seen live spotted owls in old-growth forests. Those spots help them blend into the background so that it's easy to walk past one without ever seeing it. But of course the main reason they are so rarely seen is that they are, well, so rare.

If you lived in the PNW during the 1980s and '90s, you'll remember the fights that erupted between environmentalists trying to save old-growth, and the logging interests trying to save jobs/make money. Because spotted owls were dependent on old growth, they served as a focal point for the conflict, although the real issue for environmentalists was destruction of an ecosystem.

Those issues have quieted over the years, but the spotted owl faces another challenge: the barred owl. This more aggressive, and slightly larger species, moving in from eastern states, outcompetes its relative for food. In territory disputes, the barred wins.

Some biologists hold out hope that the two species can coexist if given enough time and enough territory. 

Nearly 15 years after I'd found the dead owl, I happened to see another owl land in a tree near that same road. I grabbed my binoculars and peered through the increasing dusk. Brown streaky spots on a lighter breast (rather than white spots on a darker background) revealed a barred owl. Getting an uncommonly good look at such an evasive, nocturnal animal as an owl should have pleased me more. But that night the barred owl's proximity to an area I knew had harbored spotted owls simply seemed ominous.


  1. Backin the 80s and 90s I was working on developing a cookie I called a spotted owl, figuring that both loggers and environmentalists could sell them as fundraisers.  Rum-soaked raisins and oatmeal . . .

    We can save the spotted owl only if we kill off three fourths of the humans in the state.  Otherwise, we are one of those species that will force out all the rest. Like  Asian sea stars, or spiny sea urchins,we dominate our environment.  Or that giant pre-historic species of shark that grew so big that it ate all the food it could find and starved to death.

  2.  Loren Eiseley named us planet eaters.

  3. God planned everything so well and man just had to step in to make "improvements."  Always happens.  

  4. Species from all over the world have been traveling all over the world since the beginning of time and displacing species in the process. Things can remain the same for sometimes long periods of time but ultimately I think they do change. I guess that is how the ultimate system works. I read that Japan has quite a few disruptive foreign insects that made new homes there over the last couple of hundred years and they never did get rid of them.

  5. Really?   Not even in the freezer?  So if you left it beside the road to rot...okay...but the freezer....I guess you might be tempted to pluck feathers and make a few fishing lures or earrings.  Good thing you saved from a life of crime.  This cycle make me think of the Jurassic Park quote: " God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs."

  6. Oh no!  Does this mean barred owls are invasive, too, and I can't enjoy their sounds at night any more?   We hear them often around here. Who Cooks for YOUuuuu? Sometimes they  sound like wild dogs barking. Mating, or killing, I don't know which.

    Chuckling about your "bad naturalist" story.  Something similar happened here when I found a big brown striped feather in my yard and wondered who it belonged to.  I sent it with a friend to an Audubon meeting to have it identified and he came back chagrined, thinking I had set him up. Apparently it was the feather of a barred owl and they let him know in no uncertain terms that to have the feather of a raptor in his possession was highly illegal.  Even if the feather was found in your  yard? I thought that seemed a little harsh. Not? 

  7. oh yes I have heard about the barred owl problems.  Yes, remember those intense times in the 80s and early 90s. Spent New Year's Eve 1989-1990 in Forks, WA, when it was just a rapidly declining timber town (before Twilight fame).  The tension  was evident, as we were "foreign" backpacker environmentalist types from Seattle. Hope the spotted owls don't go extinct any time soon....

  8. I hear an owl in the night, but don't know what kind it is.  Barred, spotted or otherwise. I, too, enjoy listening to it.
    I am sad to hear of the ecosystem for one prize of nature to be disturbed by another because of our "messing around" and  succession that allows for a new creature that adapts and hurts one that doesn't,  or our importing or exporting other creatures to take care of a problem that has arisen because of our messing about. Whew!  it's like inventions...we create one to take care of a problem and create another problem. 
    I wish we worked in collaboration with environmentalists, industry, business, people, farmers, ranchers and the like with the goal of compromising where it works, eliminating actions that raise old story, I guess, about denying ( or compromising where it works)  our selfish actions  for the good of all. 
    Food for my thought: I love wood products and use toilet paper and the like, but I am also a wild space gal loving the outdoors.  I need to think about my choices and how they affect both nature and my comfort. 
     I love this forum, Pat.  I wonder what is being done about the B. owl?
    Trap, relocate...where is it from?  I read that the engineer, the beaver, is being relocated to places where it can survive from unwanted areas where farmers and ranchers get made because of their tree cutting.

  9. Wow. I hadn't heard that!

  10. And now we've got Japanese species showing up here on the PNW beaches via the tsunami--hitchhiking their way across 6,000 miles of ocean on debris. Officials are trying to destroy them as they show up... Who knows what the end result will be...

  11. Noooo, not in the freezer! You're not allowed to have even a feather, you know! See dkm's post above!

  12. I don't think barred owls are invasive where you live--just like kudzu is a nice plant over in Japan & China, while in the southern US...not so nice...