Female Spotted Owl (Taken on July 1st, 2014)
Credit: NPS photo by Emily Brouwer (Mount Rainier National Park on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

The Most Endangered Bird in Canada

In 2013, I overheard a CTV news report by Brent Shearer that only 10 spotted owls were left in Canada. In an effort to save them, barred owls (who compete for prey and attack spotted owls) were killed. Naturally, this solution upset ecologists, birdwatchers, and plenty of animal lovers everywhere.

Family of Northern Spotted OwlUSFWS - Pacific Region on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericThe underlying reason for their decline isn't solely because of the barred owl, though.

It's the fact that spotted owl habitat has been dangerously reduced by logging.

In Canada, spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) are only found in southwestern British Columbia. And, according to the Scientific Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), they are the most endangered bird in Canada.

Fortunately, in a May 2014 article by Larry Pynn of the Vancouver Sun, I learned that B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources stopped the program to kill barred owls. Instead, they are relocating them.

According to Larry Pynn's article, a total of 39 barred owls were killed and 94 have been relocated. But wouldn't you know it? Apparently, one barred owl flew back to spotted owl territory after being moved 100 km away (62 miles), over three mountain ranges, back to Stein Valley.

Some Good News

Female Spotted OwlMount Rainier NPS/ Emily Brouwer on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericWhen I checked out the Government of Canada's Species at Risk Public Registry (which relied on data spanning 1999 to 2008), it stated this sad conclusion:

"Recruitment of young [spotted] owls into the Canadian population seems to have ceased, since no juvenile owls are reaching adulthood. If no natural recruitment is occurring, the population is probably doomed to extirpation by 2012."

Extirpation means that a species is no longer found naturally occuring in a geographic area - though it can still exist elsewhere.

Well, spotted owls survived beyond that deadline and it is believed that 16 are currently living in the wild.  

So there is hope for them.

A breeding program produced five spotted owlets at Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre Society in Langley, B.C. where 17 owls were cared for.

Hoping to find a 2015 update on these gorgeous little owls, I discovered this Facebook message (dated March 11th, 2014):

"Regretfully, The Society no longer operates wildlife conservation & breeding programs, nor our guided educational tours. We do continue to offer support to the Northern Spotted Owl Program, that is now managed by the B.C. Ministry of Lands & Forests."

The Tiny Region in Canada Where Spotted Owls Live

Northern Spotted Owl Habitat in Canada
Credit: Rose Webster on Paw Mane Fin / Produced using Google Maps and Pixlr / All rights reserved

Money Cannot Replicate Nature

In an August 20th, 2014 article by Maura Forrest in The Tyee, Innergex Renewable Energy offered the B.C. government $287,790 to help with the spotted owl recovery program.

Spotted Owl with MouseTyler Karaszewski on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBut there was a catch.

Innergex planned to forge ahead with its hydroelectric project in which a transmission line would pass through protected spotted owl habitat (affecting 54 hectares).

Once the project was complete, Innergex said they would make another, similar-sized contribution to help the owls.

Yet ecologists, biologists, birders, and wildlife experts were outraged. Logging has destroyed most of the old-growth forest that spotted owls need to survive which would take a hundred years or more to grow back.

Ecologist Mark Boyce (University of Alberta) stated: "If you destroy the habitat, there's no place to put the animals from a captive breeding program." And Wilderness Committee's policy director, Gwen Barlee, stressed that every bit of land is precious to the spotted owl. She added, "Money doesn't help the spotted owl - what they need is habitat."

According to a September 30th, 2014 CNW Newswire story, the Tretheway Creek hydroelectric project, located about 50 km (31 miles) north of Harrison Hot Springs, B.C., is expected to begin commercial operation in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Two Juvenile Spotted Owls in Old-Growth Forest

Pair of juvenile Spotted Owls
Credit: USFWS - Pacific Region on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Where Spotted Owls Need to Live

Barred owls posingsdbeazley on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericThe northern spotted owl can also be found in the following US states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

They prefer to live in century-old mixed forests and canyons with some douglas fir, hemlock, pine oak, ponderosa pine, redwood, spruces, and/or western red cedar trees.

These small owls live and fly under the canopy of old forests. They make their nests out of roomy old tree cavities. 

Spotted owls, especially young owlets, are particularly vulnerable to predators such as the great horned owl, raven, red-tail hawk, and their larger relative, the barred owl (shown above). 

Biologist and birder, Dick Cannings from the Okanagan Valley, remarked in The Tyee that most of the wild owls in Canada are not breeding, either because they are too old or they lack a partner. "Only one or two nests are attempted each year," he added.

According to a 2009 Smithsonian article by Craig Welch, spotted owls are finicky eaters. Barred owls, on the other hand, will eat almost anything (including spotted owls). A study of a forested region (west of Corvallis, Oregon) found that in 1990, barred owls occupied about 2 percent of spotted owl habitat. But in 10 years, barred owls took over 50 percent of them.

Since the spotted owl's habitat has been reduced to just 10 percent of what it was 150 years ago, they've been forced to coexist with barred owls - something that did not naturally occur before.

Sharon Guynup wrote a thought-provoking article in National Geographic Today which enlightened me to the problems these two species encounter. Although these birds don't naturally get along, interbreeding has resulted in hybrid "sparred owls" (shown next).

Sparred Owlborn1945 on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericAt first, I thought this might be a good thing until I found out:

  • Interbreeding can further limit reproductive success
  • Hybrids are sometimes born sterile
  • Parents are contributing less and less [of their spotted owl genes] to the next generation
  • Hybrid species are not protected under the Endangered Species Act
  • Species can be interbred out of existence

Therefore, to paraphrase the conclusion in a Santa Clara University publication Ethics and the Spotted Owl Controversy by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez:

How we resolve these issues will depend on the importance we place on ecological, aesthetic, scientific benefits of preservation, the rights of animals, an obligation to preserve species, [and I'll add historical and environmental significance] against our own financial interests and human needs.

I feel every species deserves to keep its home. 

Up next, enjoy a short video (1:32) of a baby northern spotted owl getting checked over after falling from his nest. You'll get to see his ears. Later, he was returned to his parents' care who were observed to be taking excellent care of him.

Northern Spotted Owl Who Fell From His Nest

at WildCare's Wildlife Hospital | Published on June 3rd, 2014

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