SciSun: Hoo, Who?   1 comment

The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is a medium-sized owl that lives only in the deep, old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. (‘Old-growth’ forest is generally a forest that has never had trees cut down for lumber, or roads built, or otherwise disturbed. The most forest-y a forest can be). Unfortunately, this type forest, because it hasn’t been touched, is one of the few places left where there are trees large enough to cut down for big, strong, durable pieces of wood that people want for decoration and oversized tables and that one-of-a-kind massive exposed beam in a house that makes all the neighbors jealous. So lumber companies and land developers have been eagerly looking at cutting down the giant, old trees in what remains of those forests. But scientists and researchers noticed there didn’t seem to be many Spotted Owls in the forests; and after much work, they found only about 2000 pairs (they stay together their entire lives) in the region of approximately 25 million acres. That’s not many owls for such a large area, and owls are very important indicator species in the forest; species with great impact that scientists can study and learn about the health of entire environments. To try and protect the Spotted, they were placed on the Endangered Species list, which means they are protected from direct harm and any changes to their environment must be carefully monitored and regulated. So, while still in danger due to their low numbers and continued logging at the edges of the forests, the future was looking positive for the Spotted Owl.

But now, a new and unexpected threat has arrived – and not in the form of man cutting down the forest, or changing climate, or any health or medical emergency, but from another owl. The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a large bird native to the Eastern United States. For thousands of years the Barred – also known as the Striped Owl, Wood Owl and Hoot Owl – has lived in forests from Eastern Canada to the Southeastern US, and can often be seen in suburban neighborhoods where they do a great job keeping rats and mice and other small animals from overpopulating and causing damage and spreading disease.  Recently, the Barred has been moving west, and now can be found in the same old-growth forests where the endangered Spotted Owl is trying to hold on.  Because the Barred is slightly larger, adapts more easily to changes, lays more eggs, and generally seems to be doing a little better in this forest environment, that’s putting pressure on the Spotted Owl and their numbers are getting lower and lower.

So this brings up a difficult question; does the Barred Owl ‘belong’ in the northwest forests? The Barred isn’t doing anything wrong, it’s just trying to live the best it can. It’s not a species that’s invaded from from one environment to another, it’s always lived in the forest – just the Eastern and Southern forests, rather than the far west. No one caught and re-located these owls, they found their own way – and probably because their natural environments were being destroyed or changed to the point they couldn’t live there any longer. But, scientists agree that if the Barred Owl continues to be as successful as it has been in the west, one day there could be no more Spotted owls.

There are plans to try and control the numbers of Barred Owls and protect the Spotted, but it will be almost impossible to watch for every Barred that enters the forest. Some researchers and friends-of-Spotted think that with the Barred Owls in the forest, lumber companies and developers might see that as an excuse for cutting down the old-growth: Without the protected Spotted Owl to act as a mascot, it might be much harder to protect the forest for all the plants and animals.

Owl NorthernSpotted_USFWS

Watching his back


Are the Barred Owls moving where they don’t belong? Should these forests be set aside for Spotted Owls only? What do you think?

Learn more about Who’s Who in the world of Owls:

Posted July 15, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

Tagged with , , , , ,

One response to “SciSun: Hoo, Who?

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  1. Very interesting about the Spotted and Barred Owls. Not an easy problem to solve.

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