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Author finds species at heart of controversy

Barred owl

Last Saturday was such a beautiful day the urge to get out and walk around was overwhelming. Given all the early migratory birds being spotted across the state, it was doubly so. After meeting up with a bird watching friend from Fargo, we headed out with no clearly defined plan. But it didn’t matter, we were outside.

We stopped at a busy pedestrian trail along the Red River on the north side of town almost whimsically and began a survey of bird life. The expected species -- black-capped chickadee, common redpoll, dark-eyed junco -- were being checked off when a fairly large dark shape loomed on the edge of the wood. A binocular look confirmed it, a barred owl (Strix varia). It’s an infrequent species on the North Dakota side of the river making it a satisfying find.

Go anywhere east and south of our area and barred owls are very common within the preferred habitat of mature forests, usually near water. A person can hardly spend a hour in the woods after dark in the Southeastern U.S. without hearing this bird’s famously delivered husky call, described nearly universally as “who cooks for you; who cooks for YOU all.”

This is a robust medium-sized owl, slightly smaller than a great horned owl but considerably larger than a screech owl. Expert Pete Dunne describes the bird as “a big, imposing, barrel-shaped, somber-eyed owl...” Indeed its huge eyes are dark and hollow, giving it an almost devilish visage.

It is mostly brown and white overall with vertical streaks (or “bars”) on its front, ending at a collar consisting of horizontal bars. Its eyes are framed by large gray facial disks punctuated by a bright yellow bill.

As welcome as this bird might be locally, such is not the case along the Pacific where a huge controversy has been unfolding and brewing for years.

Slowly but inexorably, barred owls made their way from their historical range in the East, eventually spanning the continent in a thin line. In 1959, the bird was first reported in British Columbia. During the 1970s, the species encroached into Washington, Oregon, and ultimately, California. The problem, according to biologists, is its interaction with the darling of West Coast conservation, the endangered northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis ‘caurina’). Where the two species come into contact, the barred owl is winning.

The two are very closely related and have been known to hybridize (or interbreed) but only rarely. Still, the slightly larger barred owl comes out on top in every competitive trait. It’s a generalist, capable of occupying diverse habitats, whereas spotted owls require a narrower ecological niche, old-growth timber. Barred owls are aggressive, spotted owls more passive. Barred owls chase away spotted owls, taking over territory in the process. Most ominously perhaps, barred owls breed prolifically, spotted owls do not.

Enter the scientific community with a desperate eye toward saving northern spotted owls. In British Columbia, where very few remain, biologists are shooting any barred owl within five kilometers of spotted owls’ ranges. In this country, an experimental plan is being carried out on a limited scale by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They are killing barred owls where they come into contact with spotted owls. Should this prove to be successful, large scale culling of barred owls will likely happen.

As one might imagine, controversy abounds on both sides of this issue. Should the government sanction the mass killing of one species to protect another? Will it even make a difference 100 years from now? Would a hand-off approach be better than “playing God?”

In evolutionary terms, it’s fairly obvious these birds are not long separated from a common ancestor. It’s likely that multiple glaciations divided them into east/west versions of themselves over the span of thousands of years. That geographical gap is now closed, maybe for good.

I favor the hands-off argument. If a species such as the northern spotted owl cannot compete in the arena with a larger, more aggressive, and yes, more successful cousin, then it wasn’t meant to be. I always cringe when we think we know better than Nature and attempt to manipulate it. Unintended consequences inevitably result. Choosing winners and losers in the animal kingdom is a practice fraught with pitfalls and should be undertaken only in the rarest circumstances. If at all.