Barred owls in the cross-hairs of “restorationists”

There is a community of birders in Central Park in New York City who are famous around the country because the New York Times often reports on significant events in their community.  If you are a birder you know that the arrival of a rare bird in your vicinity generates a lot of excitement.  In the case of the barred owl, its arrival in Central Park was such an event.  Ironically, elsewhere in the country, the barred owl isn’t unusual because it is a species that is rapidly expanding its range and becoming a target for eradication where it is perceived as an “invader.”  The article in the New York Times was oblivious to this irony, so I took on the task of telling NYT readers about it.  Here is the dialogue that my comment generated in NYT.

[My Comment]
Oakland, CA Nov. 17

Barred owls are expanding their range. Good thing this barred owl didn’t show up here in the San Francisco Bay Area where barred owls are being shot because they are considered competitors with a rare, legally protected bird. The legally protected owl is so rare that logging was stopped in many western forests. The timber industry figured out how to place the blame on the barred owl. They hired someone to conduct a study to prove that the mere presence of the barred owl was correlated with the dwindling population of the rare owl. The study resulted in a program to shoot barred owls and the timber industry was once again allowed to log in the forests where the rare owl used to live. Here on the west coast, barred owls are one of the scapegoats that enable the fiction that endangered species are being protected. [1]

Vancouver, BC

The “rare owl” is the Spotted Owl. When mates are scarce it will actually interbreed with the Barred Owl – another threat to its continued existence. Of course the scarcity of the Spotted Owl is human-caused as you point out – the presence of Barred Owls just accelerates their disappearance

[My First Reply]
Oakland, CA Nov. 17

Yes, I know the species that is legally protected. Ironically, spotted owls would benefit greatly by hybridizing with barred owls because it is a hardier species. Hybridization is a natural, evolutionary process that often improves the survivability of the species that are breeding with more common species in order to breed. Advances in molecular analysis are reporting that hybridization is more common than previously thought and that it results in better adaptation to the environment, increasing chances for survival. Nativist attempts to prevent hybridization is futile and harmful. We can’t stop evolution, nor should we try,

[Second Response]
Vancouver, BC Nov. 17

You didn’t originally mention what the “rare owl” is called. Other people might like to know what you were talking about. Extensive hybridization with a far more numerous species will not “strengthen” the spotted owl as a species. On the contrary it will lead to the disappearance of the spotted owl as a separate species, as its genetics are swamped by those of the larger population. That’s what happened to the southeastern Red Wolf in the 1960s – when their numbers dropped very low, they began mating with coyotes, the last act in their genetic disappearance as a wolf species. “Nativism”, a political concept, has zero to do with this biological phenomenon. You say, “Hybridization is a natural, evolutionary process that often improves the survivability of the species” Well yes, in the face of human disturbance and habitat destruction, animals better adapted to the disturbed/replaced habitat will survive better… but the more sensitive species may eventually disappear, one way or another. Pigeons and rats are models of survivability – they’re highly adapted to commensal life with people – they thrive in human-altered landscapes. I wouldn’t casually class human-caused extinction as “evolution”, i.e. as a natural phenomenon and no cause for concern.

[My Second Reply]
Oakland, CA Nov. 17

The expanding range of barred owls is not caused by humans. It is also a natural phenomenon. The purpose of shooting barred owls is to enable the continued timber harvesting in the forests where spotted owls lived in the past. In other words, if “natural” processes are your goal, you might want to start by stopping the harvesting of the forests that spotted owls lived in. Spotted owls are choosing barred owls as their breeding partners. What’s more “natural” than that? Here is an article in Economist Magazine about the evolutionary value of hybridization: The Economist, “Match and mix, hybrids and evolution,” October 3-9, 2020, page 67-70. It’s not an idea that originates with me. Many articles like it are based on molecular analysis that traces the evolutionary history of hybridization for 500 million years of life on Earth.

You say, “’Nativism’, a political concept, has zero to do with this biological phenomenon.” I disagree. Nativism begins with a human prejudice against plants and animals (including humans) perceived as foreign. It becomes political when it becomes government policy and law, as it has in the case of shooting barred owls. That program was initiated and administered by US Fish and Wildlife. Likewise, attempts to abolish all forms of human immigration to the US is a policy of the federal government. I seem to have attracted the attention of members or admirers of the “restoration” industry. I’m glad. You should know that your deadly projects are not universally admired. They are misguided and they are usually based on specious reasoning masquerading as “science.” When they kill animals and use pesticides to kill plants, they are damaging the environment and the animals that live in it.

[Another Responder Steps in]
Bloomfield, NJ Nov. 18

Barred owls moved north and west in the late 20th century because of the forestation of what was historically prairie and other treeless habitats. That’s about as clearly “caused by humans” as anything.

[And receives assistance from Vermont]
Middlebury, VT Nov. 18

Yellow Barred Owls only occur on the West Coast because Europeans planted trees across the great plains as windbreaks and parkland, allowing the owls to spread across the formerly treeless region. Prior to that, the species was confined to the East Coast–their expansion to the Pacific is entirely the result of human interferance in the ecosystem. They should not be in the West and their removal, along with strong habitat protection, is the best hope for the Northern Spotted Owl to survive as a species.

[I got the last word]
Oakland, CA Nov. 18

The forests in which barred owls live along the West Coast were not planted. They are native conifer forests. As for pre-settlement prairie now occupied by forests, they are the result of natural succession from grassland to shrubland and ultimately forests in the absence of indigenous burning and grazing by native ungulates. They weren’t planted either. In the view of the “restoration” industry, natural processes such as succession, hybridization, and evolution are not consistent with the goal of re-creating a pre-settlement landscape. It’s a fool’s errand, even in the absence of a rapidly changing climate which makes it delusional. The only thing constant about nature is change. There’s nothing natural about humans killing animals they have decided “don’t belong there.”

According to this map of barred owl distribution, the route the barred owl took from the East to the West Coast was via the boreal forests of Canada. Source: Cornell Ornithology Lab

Addendum:  The barred owl is the pin-up photo for the January page of Audubon’s 2021 calendar.  Here’s what Audubon says about the conservation status of the barred owl:  “The rich baritone hooting of the Barred Owl is a characteristic sound – one that some birders may already hear less of due to loss of parts of the bird’s southern swamp habitat to climate-related threats, including wildfires, spring heat waves, and urbanization.  Audubon is passing clean energy legislation in the South, including landmark solar energy bills in Arkansas and South Carolina, ensuring a healthier future for these states and birds, like the Barred Owl, that depend on them.” 

We often find contradictions between the national policies of environmental organizations such as Audubon and their local chapters.  In this case local Audubon chapters are actively engaged in shooting barred owls that are expanding their range into cooler, northern climates, while the national organization understands that the barred owl must change its range to survive climate change.  Well-meaning people often don’t have the big picture when making conservation decisions and they are resistant to changes in nature. The instinct seems to be to freeze nature into place.  Nature won’t stand for that.  January 2021

[1] Green Diamond Resource Co, a lumber company managing timberland in Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties, is the author of the plan to “manage” barred owls in their forests. (“Managing” or “removing” barred owls is the euphemism used to describe the killing of barred owls by shooting them.) Lowell Diller, a biologist and contractor for the Green Diamond Resource Co., was responsible for the “study” that resulted in the “management” plan. He designed the study and literally executed it by shooting barred owls. When interviewed by the Bay Area News Group, Green Diamond Resource Co. explained, “When you can protect and sustain a business and jobs and also conserve the northern spotted owl,” he said, “why not do it?” (source: “California biologists shoot scores of bully owls to protect endangered spotted owls,” East Bay Times, August 15, 2016)


4 thoughts on “Barred owls in the cross-hairs of “restorationists””

  1. This is totally crazy. The spotted owl was originally targeted by the timber industry, and saved, and now the barred owl is hated because it is possibly batting with the spotted owl.
    Aside from the fact that I totally agree with the comments in favor of letting nature take its course it reminds me of how people who married or cohabited with someone other than their own color, race, religion etc were banned. Excuse me but I think the nativist attitudes are a
    throwback to the long held prejudices that hopefully are now out of style. And as a result since they can’t be applied to humans they are applied to plants and animals that can’t fight back.

  2. well done – hope it was read by other than the nativist arguers –

    and – hope the pendulum starts swinging in the other direction soon too!

    *R* o b i n *S* h e r r e r c: 4 1 5 . 5 3 3 . 6 0 8 3

    On Sat, Nov 21, 2020 at 9:24 AM Conservation Sense and Nonsense wrote:

    > milliontrees posted: “There is a community of birders in Central Park in > New York City who are famous around the country because the New York Times > often reports on significant events in their community. If you are a > birder you know that the arrival of a rare bird in your vic” >

  3. Thank you so much for your article and answers to the fanatics. I had no idea the owls were being killed to allow more logging. The nativists can say the Barred Owls are spreading all they like, but I have seen them only once, not far from where I saw two Spotted Owl babies, also in Muir Woods. They are almost indistinguishable from each other and beautiful. I felt honored to see them. And as I suspected, the maligned Barred Owl was doing fine in Muir Woods, surrounded by noisy humans, while the Spotted Owls were higher up, where there was quiet and no people. (I say this because the Barred Owls are blamed for driving out Spotteds, but I think the Spotteds need quieter Old Growth Forests, while the Barred can withstand increasing humans. )

    You are so rational and sensible! It is a thrill to see either of these rare raptors, and if they hybridize to increase what few numbers they have, good for them! And good for those of us who love to see them and who love them.

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