Spotted Owl

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

The spotted owl is a resident of dense coniferous and mixed evergreen forests of the western United States and northern Mexico. Ornithologists recognize three subspecies; the northern spotted owl, the California spotted owl, and the Mexican spotted owl. They have different ranges, different habits, different lives.

The spotted owl is darkish, raven-sized, dark-eyed, and without the ear- or horn-like feathers of many other owls. Other large, dark-eyed owls include its close cousin the barred owl of the east – which, by the way, is rapidly expanding its range in the northwest – and the barn owl, with its white, heart-shaped face.

Our spotted owl is the northern spotted owl. We have learned a lot about it since we realized that the owl has a definite liking for old-growth coniferous forests. Much of what we know is based on birds whose movements have been tracked by radiotelemetry. The owls are easily captured and miniature radio transmitters attached. When released, their movements can be monitored by radio receivers.

They are monogamous, mostly nocturnal, long lived and mate for life. Their home range varies from 1,800 to 9,000 acres and contains from 1,200 to 2,500 acres of old-growth. They feed, nest and roost in old-growth or old-growth trees associated with younger forests. They feed mostly on flying squirrels, woodrats, and red tree voles, nocturnal, tree-dwelling mammals whose optimum habitat is old growth.

At the present time infant mortality among northern spotted owls is worse than infant mortality among humans in the United States. When the owls nest, an event that has been decreasing recently, not many of the owlets and subadults survive beyond their second year. They succumb to starvation and the great horned owl. Reports of spotted owls in second growth are cause for cheer only when reproduction and survival to adulthood can be demonstrated.

They don’t use open areas like clearcuts and reservoirs. There is little evidence that they can change their ways to utilize younger manmade forests. The northern spotted owl is as much a part of the old growth ecosystem as the trees themselves. When the old growth trees are gone, in all probability so will be the northern spotted owl. And it will be too bad, too bad for the owls, too bad for all of us. We must find a way for the northern spotted owl and, as former US Representative Bob Smith put it, the freckle-faced logger, to live in peace and harmony. It won’t be easy. Such unhappy circumstances remind me of a quote by the biologist Victor Scheffer from his book The Year of the Whale:

If you believe that human life has meaning or purpose or direction or destiny, you will know in your heart that our life is bound all around and together and forever with the lives of the animals who were present at our creation. If we survive, we will care for the whales and other wild creatures, and if we perish through our own cleverness the end of the wild things will have been an early warning of our folly.

Of what value is the spotted owl? Its presence is a clear indication of a healthy functioning, old-growth coniferous forest ecosystem.

— Dr. Frank Lang   

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