When the winds come, and the branches swing, the owl moves with them. He blinks, puffing out his spotted wings. All the forest sings. There is the throaty chant of his mate. Coo-coo-coo-coo-roo, dropping in pitch at the end.
Across the creek, two owlets sit atop tree-ferns dying brown for the summer. High in the maple tree, they bob their fluffed heads in circles. One emits a squeak. It rings out among the rain darkened trees.
From behind one cedar, a stout brown owl emerges. Her wings spread soundlessly, effortlessly. Behind her buzzes an angry robin, just barely out of reach of the owl’s smooth stride. Away from the well-guarded nest, the owl glides.
She perches on the branch below her mate. There, they stare, they watch. Even as the sunlight sprinkles their faces. It is only them and the hemlock that holds them.
That is, until the early night spreads over the forest. A coolness touches the wind, bringing with it deep creek smells, soft finch songs welcoming the evening.
Then the Barred Owls dance as one, wings unison in silence. And, black eyes probing the distant meadow, they fly.
Barred Owls may not be native to the Pacific Northwest, but they have made it their home. Strix varia is strikingly similar in appearance – and closely related to – the native species Strix occidentalis caurina. Commonly known as the Northern Spotted Owl, this species lives exclusively in old-growth forests (Lamberson 505). Barred owls are less selective of their habitat, which range from pristine, ancient forests to noisy neighborhoods. In fact, a family of them live in my own forested backyard.
With overlapping territories, Barred Owls are out-competing the fragile Northern Spotted Owl. Securing resources is increasingly difficult for the Northern Spotted Owl, whose forests are rapidly disappearing.
The Pacific Northwest is known for its temperate rainforests; for Douglas Firs weeping in moss; for wild, foggy hills. Clear-cutting shaves bare this fertile terrain.
Even if rows of new trees are planted, such biodiversity is unable to be mimicked. The logging industry trades death for profit, for money. What took hundreds of years to develop is suddenly, irreparably, demolished.
One missing link in the food web will affect all the others in it. If vegetation is disturbed due to deforestation, herbivores will diminish in numbers. Then, with their prey’s population falling, carnivores will falter as well. Elsewhere, populations that were once kept in check by those carnivores will flourish, straining their resources.
Everything is connected.
Environmentalists have worked to preserve this connection. They have fought for the forest, and the Spotted Owl itself. Strix occidentalis caurina was added to the Endangered Species List in 1990 (Yardley New York Times.com). As a result, “Bill Clinton presided over the ‘timber summit’ in Portland, Ore.” (Raban New York Times.com) in 1993, where environmentalists and loggers delivered their arguments on the subject of forest protection. The timber industry insisted that their livelihoods were jeopardized by stricter regulations. Environmentalists maintained that the existence of the Northern Spotted Owl was a more immediate priority.
Besides the proposed benefits to the Northern Spotted Owl, protected forestland would also provide “cleaner water and air to habitat for hundreds of other species, including endangered salmon” (Yardley). It was to be ecologically beneficial on a grand scale, and prevent a unique species from disappearing.
The following year, “the Northwest Forest Plan came into effect, protecting around 20 million acres of federal land from logging, and offering financial compensation and job retraining to the timber towns” (Raban).
Land once plumaged for profit became land reserved for life. The economic landscape of the Pacific Northwest changed drastically. Logging fell from power. Traditionally timber-dominated towns were not pleased, criticizing that an owl was considered more important than their own welfare.
Time passed, but the Northern Spotted Owl did not recover. On the contrary, its numbers have continued to drop by three percent per year on average. (Yardley)
Invading Barred Owls are a major factor in their decline (Singleton 285). Originally from the eastern edge of North America, Strix varia has experienced a “dramatic range expansion” within the last two decades (Yackulic, 2012).
In sharing habitat, these cousins compete over resources. Barred Owls are physically larger and more adaptable. Their diet is more flexible than that of Northern Spotted Owls, who dine almost exclusively on wood rats and flying squirrels (Yardley).
Barred Owls have become tyrants to Northern Spotted Owls. They kill over territorial disputes. Occasionally, they even mate, creating hybrid offspring (Hudson, 2007) . Such mixes could dilute the faltering, genetically pure populations of Northern Spotted Owls. Although hybrids are a natural occurrence, this is “a situation worsened by the actions of man…European arrivals began removing barriers that separated related species” by clearing land and altering habitat (Oosthoek, 2007).
What is to be done about this infestation of Barred Owls? Governments, scientific communities, and environmental activists are charged with the longevity of the Northern Spotted Owl. Choosing not to act could be ” potentially dire for the Spotted Owl” (Buchanan, 2007).
According to Buchanan in Biological Invasions, there are several options.
Habitat conditions could be altered to give the Northern Spotted Owl a benefit. Alternatively, “Food could either be provided to Barred Owls to divert them from…areas that support Spotted Owls (i.e., diversionary feeding) or it could be provided to Spotted Owls to augment their diets (i.e., supplemental feeding)” (Buchanan).
Or, one could prevent Barred Owls from reproducing. This could be done by confiscating eggs, or through the use of contraceptives.
More research is needed on these methods. How they will impact the species in question as well as the surrounding ecosystem must first be understood.
An option growing in popularity is removal. Barred Owls could be moved – either through relocation or extermination. The former would be ethical but far more expensive. In addition, proper space must be found to move the Barred Owls to.
Mass death is thought to be the most effective process to decrease Barred Owl populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may consider killing 2,150 to 4,650 Barred Owls as part of an extended study (Livezey, 2010).
Before any action can be taken, surveying and research needs to be done. (Wiens, 2011) Barred Owl and Northern Spotted Owl interactions, as well as the independent actions of each species, should be monitored.
Seems simple, doesn’t it? Keep the prevalent species under control to save the endangered one. The question is, should we even be interfering? Perhaps this is merely a demonstration of natural selection. Yes, humans sped up the process. Forest fragmentation weakened the Northern Spotted Owl population, and encouraged Barred Owls to move west (Oosthoek). Maybe we should now let nature take its course.
Who are we to kill? Who are we to decide which species proliferate? Those are actions greater than man. We are too small to deal with them.
Then again, this is our mess. If we hadn’t destroyed habitats the world over, or hunted excessively, or polluted the earth, species like the Northern Spotted Owl would not be endangered. If we weren’t materialistic over-consumers, we wouldn’t need so many resources.
Is it not up to us to wipe clean our mess? To restore our world to its former, natural glory? Nature governs herself. She is a self-sustaining entity, unless tampered with. We have created more work for ourselves.
There is nothing beyond nature, for it is tangled up within us. How can we, for any one moment, turn our heads to ignore the damage we are doing? Could we ignore the air, the water, the sun, the sky? We cannot exist without nature’s sweet breath. Not only do we take it in, we exhale it as well.
Why, then, would we ever place money above what truly sustains us? Choosing trees over wood was the right step.
Reducing Barred Owl populations in whatever way is most wise. Let both owls serve as teachers. Our mistakes should be carried with us, never to be repeated.
Look into the black eyes of either species, and what is really important becomes instantly obvious… Not possessions. Not the made-up prestige of society.
No. What matters most is life.