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Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 9.25.08

 

Clear Vision

Spotted vs. barred owls in shrinking forests

words by Melissa Hart

May 1997 — Redwood National Park, Calif. — Mist drifts through ancient trees, fogging the lenses of the birdwatcher’s binoculars. He wipes them off, intent on the swift gold flash of a Wilson’s warbler. On the path, his sneaker touches something solid — the beheaded body of a spotted owl, chest shredded, creamy entrails festooning the duff. Shivering, the birdwatcher looks up. A barred owl perches on a low branch, obsidian talons clinging to the soft feathers of its prey.

Bodhi the barred owl. Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

In 1997, three years after the adoption of President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan, most residents believe that loggers pose the only threat to northern and California spotted owls. They’ve never heard of barred owls, the spotteds’ larger cousin lately migrated from the eastern U.S. Along I-5, out-of-work mill workers and lumberjacks have long sported bumper stickers on their vehicles.

Save a logger — kill an owl

I love spotted owls — fried.

I see this on an L.A. news station and laugh without comprehension. I’ve never seen an owl. In the over-bright city of angels, it doesn’t occur to me to look up.

 

May 2004 — Corvallis — Eric Fors-man makes his living looking up. For 31 years, the U.S. Forest Service biologist lived beside “Fat Broad,” an orphaned spotted owl he rescued as a parasite-infested baby and adopted to illustrate lectures on the species’ plight. He documents the spread of barred owls into Northwest forests, observing their resiliency. Barreds nest almost anywhere; they’ve killed spotteds in competition for food and space. Forsman concludes that barred owl migration will cause population reductions among their smaller cousins along with gene-pool dilution. Some have interbred, creating a new owl called a “sparred.”

Charles Meslow, professor of wildlife ecology at OSU, tells The New York Times that interbreeding is rare. “We suspect that for this to occur something had to change in the environment,” he notes. “The main thing that has changed is that we’re getting rid of the older forest.’’

Weary of asphalt and traffic, I’ve lately migrated to Eugene. At dusk, I hear a sound like a bouncing Ping-Pong ball from my backyard cedar. A man at the dog park tells me it’s a screech owl. The man, whose name is Jonathan, imitates the call. Looking at his hawk-like nose, I wonder if he’s part bird.

As our dogs chase tennis balls, Jonathan tells me of his work rehabilitating injured birds of prey at the Cascades Raptor Center. “You should volunteer,” he says. Numerous species live there, permanent residents due to injuries from cars, barbed wire, poisoning and gunshot. My new position consists of scrubbing cages and disposing of what my trainer calls “pieces-parts” — chicken feet, quail feathers, rat guts — whatever the birds don’t eat.

I pick up grey pellets with their treasure troves of mouse bones and wince as two northern spotted owls fly over my head. I’m terrified of their talons, but the Bush administration wants to triple the amount of old-growth logging in the Golden State, threatening the California spotted owl. Now, volunteering at the raptor center feels political. I decide to stay.



June 2005 — Klamath National Forest, Calif. — The northern spotted owl population takes a dive. Barreds have displaced two pairs of the 32 living in old-growth near Yreka, and they’re threatening a third. Federal scientists permit the California Academy of Sciences to shoot three barred owls, hoping spotteds will return.

They do. But Eric Forsman notes that when the government ceases hunting, the barreds will move in again. “Assuming you find removal is working — spotted owls move back into their territories,” he asks, “are you prepared to do that for the next 10,000 years?”

I struggle to discern differences between the two species at CRC. Compared to Loki — the venerable barred owl with a badly crippled wing — the northern spotted, Chenoa, is smaller with spots instead of stripes. But they share similar feather color, the same mocha eyes and round head. 

I listen as Jonathan talks to third-graders with Chenoa on his glove. Looking at the bird’s sharp beak and talons, I cringe. But he loves this owl, and gradually, I begin to love it, too. 

 

April 2007 — Jackson County, Ore. — Federal officials propose a $198 million plan to recover northern spotted owls over 30 years. The proposal conserves specific areas in which the birds make their home. The Bush administration returns the plan for revision, asking to eliminate the protection of specific forests. 

Simultaneously, the BLM considers a move to allow logging across more of western Oregon. For several years, the state has received $150 million annually to compensate for past timber harvests. It cashed its final check in December 2006. Now, visitors to libraries in Jackson County see this sign on the door: 

All 15 Jackson County Library branches

WILL BE CLOSED

as of Saturday, April 7, 2007

due to a lack of funding.

I haunt the stacks in Eugene’s public library, checking out books on raptors. Several longtime volunteers at CRC have been trained to work with birds on the glove, and I sign up for six months of classes on raptor handling. I’m still terrified of talons, but I long to deliver natural history talks with an owl on my arm.

For weeks, I balance a cup of water on my gloved fist until my sneakers are no longer soaked and my arm is steady. “Choose a species to observe,” CRC’s education coordinator tells me. 

The choice is easy. The federal government has proposed killing up to 500 barred owls. Biologists plan to lure them with decoys and recordings and then shoot them.

I want to study these birds myself. I unlock the door to Loki’s enclosure, sit gingerly on a stump and examine the owl. 

Is he the enemy, three pounds and crippled on his Astroturf perch? I have no idea.

May 2007 — Washington, D.C. — Tipped off by the Union of Concerned Scientists, internal reviewers find that Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Parks, has bullied biologists, altered scientific findings and leaked government information to industry groups disgruntled with Endangered Species Act protections. 

MacDonald resigns.

Busy with babies at the raptor center, I barely notice the news. In the spring, fledgling owls fall from nests. Logging and haying orphan others. They arrive in CRC’s clinic, where we hand-feed them several times a day until they’re old enough to be fostered by permanent-resident birds.

In Texas, someone discovers a baby barred owl — a grey and white fluffball with a broken wing. He’ll never fly well enough to hunt. The center’s director reads about him on a raptor listserv and receives a permit from Oregon Fish and Wildlife to retain him as an education bird. The owl arrives via Delta Airlines, dark eyes enormous in his fuzzy face.

I have the summer off from teaching, and the assistant director asks me if I’d like to glove-train the baby. “It’s a commitment,” she cautions. “You’ll have to work with him every day until he steps onto your glove calmly.” 

Soberly, I meet her eyes, the baby owl locked in my peripheral vision. “I’ll commit,” I tell her.

Each day, I bike or drive up to CRC to work with the owl. At first, he clacks his beak and recoils when I put my hand in his cage. I scratch his head to mimic parental preening; using this as a reward, I teach him to step on my glove. Within a week, he blinks his eyes placidly at my approach and stands calmly on my wrist. We decide to name him Bodhi.

Two wild barreds appear in the firs above the center. At night, as Jonathan and I finish our volunteer shift together, they call across the forest. He teaches me to imitate them. “Who cooks for you?” I hoot into the darkness. 

Bodhi sits silent in his clinic cage, eyes wide and head swiveling as if trying to discern the answer.

 

August 2007 — Portland — An editorial in The Oregonian urges people to stop regarding the northern spotted owl as a “legal tool.” The author notes that the decade-old forest protection plan hasn’t resulted in the species’ resurgence. Spotted owl populations plummet at about three percent a year, and they’ve all but disappeared from the fearsomely-protected Olympic National Park. He concludes that few in the 1980s foresaw the threat to northern spotted owls presented by a stronger, more resilient species — the barred owl.

On CRC’s lawn, I study Bodhi’s long black eyelashes, the feathers framing his eyes in twin discs that help to focus sound. He’s been bathing in his water pan. He fluffs up his feathers and shakes like a wet dog. Then he stretches his neck toward the sun and closes his eyes in what looks to me like bliss.

It’s difficult just then to see owls as a legal tool.

I teach him to load into a carrier for a Boy Scout troop meeting. He sits on a perch in an auditorium while kids exclaim over his beak, his sharp talons. “He’s a pound and a half?” they cry, disbelieving until I insert my index finger up to the knuckle in Bodhi’s downy chest before it touches bird-body. I explain that he’s mostly feathers and hollow bones. I add that the world needs owls; otherwise, we’d be overrun with rodents. 

I don’t tell the boys about the controversy involving spotted owls. Better, I think, to let them admire Bodhi a while longer.

October 2007 — Washington, D.C. — The month Bodhi gets his adult feathers, 23 members of Congress and 113 scientists demand that the Bush administration toss out its spotted owl recovery plan and start over. They cite possible distortion of facts that would justify opening old-growth forests to logging.

The president assigns a team of independent scientists to review the plan. The consulting group will study risks to spotted owls posed by loss of habitat from logging and fire. It will also examine threats posed by barred owls.

At CRC, we move Bodhi outside to live with Loki. At 27, the older bird merely blinks at the newcomer who stalks across his perch and attacks a clump of lichen with his foot. In spite of his ferocity, Bodhi looks terribly tiny and vulnerable. When I approach with my glove, he steps up and attempts to hoot. But all the adolescent bird can eke out is a gravelly “who?”

I meditate on the syllable as we stroll around the center, ending up in front of the spotted owls’ enclosure. Who decides who lives and who dies? Who is the pawn in this age-old battle for forest rights? Whose side am I on?

 

January 2008 — Charlotte, N.C. — Barred owls attain celebrity status. Dozens swoop into suburban neighborhoods to nest in willow oak trees above sidewalks. They sail down from leafy canopies at dusk, snatching bats, fish, opossums and snakes. Their only predators are vehicles. 

Biologists from the University of North Carolina mount nestboxes in parks and backyards, studying the owls through infrared cameras. They record video footage and beam it to televisions in nearby homes. Neighbors host owl-watching parties. 

In Eugene, I ease Bodhi into his crate inside my Volkswagen and head for the Good Earth Home Show. At the convention center, I watch him for signs of stress. He cranes his neck to gaze at a banner swaying from the ceiling and clacks his beak. A man walks up to me and stares. “That bird native?” he demands.

I tell him barred owls appeared in the Northwest in the 1970s. A passerby hears me and interrupts. “Is he native?” she snorts. “Depends on who you ask.” Together, they glare at the owl.

I draw Bodhi toward me. “Where are you from?” The question is out of my mouth before I can stop it.

“Georgia,” the woman snaps. “Why?”

I look at her a moment, then turn away.

The question of native and non-native is crucial to the spotted/barred owl debate. While some scientists believe barreds hopscotched across the continent a century ago — flying from tree to tree planted by westward-expanding settlers — Eric Forsman believes the motivation for the species’ move will never be clear. Range expansion occurs for various reasons, including random chance or climate change — problematic when talk turns to shooting one species in order to save another. Forsman notes that if the birds did indeed spread naturally, those who propose killing barred owls act as if the Endangered Species Act trumps natural selection.

“What kind of raptor is that?” A young woman steps up to CRC’s Home Show booth and points to Bodhi.

I force a smile. “He’s an owl.”

February 2008 — Eugene — An adult barred owl arrives at CRC dangling an injured leg — victim of a trap set for raccoons suspected of taking someone’s pigeons. The director cleans the wound. Jonathan, now my husband, grips the owl’s legs on the operating table and closes his eyes against the sight of bone and tendon gaping from ragged flesh. I make myself look. The director dresses the wound and places the bird in a sheet-covered carrier to recuperate.

That weekend, Jonathan and I hike into the forest with a city arborist who volunteers to climb trees when a baby raptor needs replacement in a nest. He’s studied old-growth forest and spotted owl habitat minutely, from the vantage point of hundreds of feet up a tree. “So,” I say as we walk along a path. “What’s your take on the government’s plan to shoot barred owls?”

I assume he’ll recoil at the thought of killing any forest creature. He doesn’t.

 “We’ve worked so hard to save spotteds,” he says. Still, he worries that local hunters will take it upon themselves to manage the barred owl population. I tell him about California biologist Lowell Diller, who compared his experiment in eradicating barred owls a few years before to a “redneck sport, done from the tail of your pickup truck.” 

The arborist nods. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I’d hoped for clarity, but I remain confused. Hiding my frustration, I bend down to examine an owl pellet and accidentally lacerate my cornea on a branch of Himalayan blackberry. 

My doctor prescribes antibiotics. I bring the drops with me to CRC. The director walks into the clinic behind Jonathan and me, carrying a cardboard pet carrier. 

“Is that the injured barred owl?” Jonathan asks. “How’s it doing?”

“Dead,” she says.

I’ve got my head thrown back, squeezing drops into my eye. At her reply, I straighten up and blink at the two-foot body stretched out rigid on the file cabinet. It’s the barred owl with the broken leg. I look at the shredded leg, at the creamy breast festooned with chocolate-hued stripes. The feathered feet, once so formidable, lay flaccid, talons rendered innocuous.

Outside, the setting sun lengthens tree shadows across the lawn. The wild barreds hoot from the firs. Chenoa answers with her low bark. I want to cry at the sight of the magnificent dead bird in front of me, but I know that it’s critical to see this owl clearly.   ew

Melissa Hart teaches journalism at the UO. She works as a volunteer educator and animal caregiver at the Cascades Raptor Center (www.eraptors.org).



Spotted Owls Stop Logging (Again)

Barred vs. spotted owls aside, the northern spotted owl is still a key player in ongoing efforts to save Oregon’s forests from old-growth logging. Last week, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan ruled in favor of a lawsuit that stopped the U.S. Forest Service from logging in 2,000 acres of old growth in the Deschutes National Forest that is nesting, roosting and forage habitat for the spotted owls.

The lawsuit was filed by local environmental group the Cascadia Wildlands Project in addition to the League of Wilderness Defenders, Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project and the Sierra Club. 

Ironically, the environmental groups did not seek to stop all logging on the project, according to CWP’s legal director Dan Kruse. “We were encouraging them to do thinning and burning in young, fire-suppressed stands and drop the old-growth logging,” he says.

Logging had already begun in the Forest Service’s disputed Five Buttes Project, which lies on either side of the Cascade Lakes Highway in the Crescent Ranger District.

Kruse says if the Forest Service had dropped the old-growth logging portion of the project, the groups would not have filed or continued their lawsuit, and that they would still like to see the thinning project take place. 

Hogan ruled in favor of the environmental groups’ argument that the old-growth logging in the Five Buttes project would have a long-term negative impact on the spotted owls with only a short-term benefit in fire reduction. The Northwest Forest Plan only allows fuels reduction with short-term impact on species like the owls and long-term benefits, according to Kruse, who calls the case “precedent setting.” 

“There’s a legitimate need for thinning,” says Kruse. “But we don’t want to see them using ‘forest health’ as another guise for old-growth logging,” he says. — Camilla Mortensen