Guest Author - Carrie McLaughlin
Invasive. Aggressive. Non-native. Incompatible. Predatory. Threat. Usurper. Bully. Forest pest.
Do not be led astray by the incendiary semantics of propagandists intent on obscuring the dismal failings of government agencies charged with protecting our forests and Spotted Owls - and the vituperates of those paid henchmen who doggedly pursue the monetary interests of timber magnates.
The calculated, pervasive use of the words “invasive” and “aggressive” and “non-native” to describe the Barred Owl (BO) is a straw man designed to lead us away from the real and proven issues that continue to hound our Northern Spotted Owls (NSO).
The Big Lie. A term first devised in Hitler’s "Mein Kampf" and popularly referred to by this quote of Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it...”
By Executive Order 13112 of February 3, 1999, the federal definition of “invasive” is “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health”. “Alien species” is defined “...with respect to a particular ecosystem, any species... that is not native to that ecosystem”. The feds define “native” as “... with respect to a particular species that, other than as a result of an introduction, historically occurred or currently occurs in that ecosystem.” “ Introduction” means the “intentional or unintentional escape, release, dissemination, or placement of a species into an ecosystem as a result of human activity.”
The Barred Owl is a federally protected raptor native to the North American continent and currently occurs in Canada, the United States and Mexico. This is truth - a fact which cannot be gainsaid. It was not introduced into any ecosystem as a result of human activity - it has expanded its habitat naturally within its native range. By federal definition it is a native, and so therefore cannot also be an alien. The Barred Owl is a native migrant in the Pacific Northwest - not an alien, invasive, introduced species.
And this word “aggressive”. It is being falsely used to indicate hostile behavior in the Barred Owl, whereas it should be correctly used to denote an assertive, bold and enterprising species - as are all predators, including the Spotted Owl. It seems to be the degree of aggressiveness that is being applied to the BO relative to the SO. But a closer examination of that emphasis shows that it does not bear up to the scrutiny.
There are anecdotes about the BO acting aggressively toward perceived NSOs when threat calls are being artificially sounded. Sort of like someone standing outside your kitchen window screaming obscenities and curses at you - heard all over the neighborhood- until you finally go out and pop him one. Not one study has confirmed this alleged aggression against NSOs as a matter of habit, however. In fact, in David Wiens’ 2012 dissertation which he executed in an area of Oregon where the Barred Owl outnumbered the Spotted Owl by 4 to 1, he “found no evidence that Spotted Owls were killed or predated by Barred Owls...”
But mum is the word from researchers and others who have eye-witnessed NSOs being aggressive with Barred Owls. The conspiratorial silence falls apart, though, when you consider the hybridization issue. A study (Haig et al, 2004) on hybridization and genetics of these two species opened with this statement: “Our analyses corroborated the findings of extensive field studies that most hybrids genetically sampled resulted from crosses between female Barred Owls and male Spotted Owls.”
Let that sink in for just a moment.
This means that in the highly competitive, preponderantly aggressive world of avian mate selection, the male Spotted Owls beat the male Barred Owls hands down. Male Spotted Owls necessarily had to aggressively and fiercely out compete Barred Owl males, and other Northern Spotted Owls to boot, in order to win Lady Love’s favor. Just who is the bully here, anyway? Well, no one, actually. But it does reasonably prove that the NSO cannot be bullied without granting permission, and can out do the competition when the stakes are high enough.
The Barred Owl is a genetically healthy raptor that adapts well to changing conditions and habitats and food sources. It is known to co-exist peacefully with the Mexican Spotted Owl, and there is no evidence that it does not do so with the NSO. What you do not hear about are all the considered opinions from scientists and researchers that the BO actually fills niches left behind by the NSO (for whatever reason that the NSOs choose to vacate) and is not responsible for driving the NSOs off their nests or out of their territories. There is only circumstantial evidence of these allegations of territory take-overs, and no scientific studies.
Why are the studies so important, and why can we not just accept a few scattered eye-witness accounts (many of which are “of the moment” and do not carry with them a chain of evidence or a suitable history)? Dr. Bridget Stutchbury states it simply and clearly in her book, "The Private Lives of Birds": “The job of the scientist is to identify interesting questions and find the answers by gathering convincing evidence, something that casual observation cannot usually accomplish. Hypothesis testing is the foundation of the scientific method, and the most difficult part of doing field studies on birds is collecting the right kind of information, in large enough quantities, to test one idea against another... This kind of painstaking work is needed to explain the most basic questions about bird behavior and to reveal the incredibly complex social lives that most birds lead.”
What the Barred Owl does do is compete with the Northern Spotted Owl for resources (competition being a healthy, not a hostile, endeavor). Wiens (2012) found that the two species are not overly competitive, as “... SOs and BOs differed in terms of their space-use, habitat selection, foraging strategies and diets.” Wiens further states that “... the survival of both species [is] associated with the amount of old forest in their home range...” “Survival of both species was positively associated with an increasing proportion of old (>120 years old) conifer forest with the home range, which suggested that availability of old forest was a potential limiting factor in the competitive relationship between the two species.”
In other words, give them enough space, of the appropriate kind, and they will co-exist peacefully and - all else being equal- both will thrive.
The more the studies, the more the vindication for the Barred Owl - and the more the evidence mounts in favor of preserving the old growth forest necessary to help save our Spotted Owls.
Have we not already saved those old growth forests? Are they not preserved into eternity from being harvested? Are the Spotted Owl sites not left undisturbed and sacrosanct within the bowels of the deep, dark woods?
Mike Dubrasich, experienced forester of many years, testified before the US House Natural Resources Committee on May 21, 2012, and declared that the US Forest Service unilaterally fire-bombed Oregon old growth forest and that “30 nesting pairs of Spotted Owls [were] burned up”. That would be 60 Spotted Owls - not including their young. He swore on oath that those fires were set without approval by any other agency, and were a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and were not in accordance with the federally-mandated NEPA permit process.
This one egregious act was not only against the forest itself, but a direct hit against the Spotted Owl and its reproductive success. This is Oregon, by the way - where the bitterest complaints are registered about the low numbers of NSOs and the high numbers of BOs. How many times has this kind of thing happened throughout the Pacific Northwest as Big Timber lumbers onward doing business as usual and government agencies run interference for them? Even the California-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) has stated that “federal authorities have refused to prosecute ESA violations”.
Some would argue that, regardless of other issues, the admitted competition from the Barred Owl is, at minimum, one of the “thousand cuts” leading to the extinction of the Northern Spotted Owl species, and must be mitigated. But I would counter that the appalling circumstances and actions perpetrated by venal government agencies and their corporate compadres are the single biggest threat to the conservation of the Northern Spotted Owl. With or without Barred Owls - the current habitat situation and the long-standing lack of ESA law enforcement has to change for the better, or it will not matter how many “cuts”, and by whom.
Killing Barred Owls while all else is deteriorating? How does this make sense? How can it ever be justified? Where are the champions for this falsely maligned and valuably successful raptor? Who will make a stand against the wanton and willful destruction of this beautiful bird that is innocent of the propagandist charges fabricated against it?
I agree with the long-time noted Spotted Owl biologist, Eric Forsman, that “all we can do is try our best to provide [a] habitat for Spotted Owls, and in the long run, we’re just going to have to let the two species work it out”.
Do you agree? If so, please send this article series to your local Audubon chapters, and call your local US senators and representatives. If you live outside the United States, let your government officials know that the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act is being violated by the United States. The other articles may be found at http://www.bellaonline.com/site/Birding.