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)


“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”

Southern sea otter
Southern sea otter. Creative Commons

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently announced that after a 25-year effort, they are finally giving up on the fantasy that they can relocate otters from the coast of California to one of the Channel Islands off the coast.  From 1987 to 1991, they captured and relocated 140 otters in a futile attempt to create a “no-otter zone.”  (1)

Only 40 otters remain near the Channel Islands.  Fish & Wildlife claims that most of the otters returned to the coast.  We’ll never know how many otters died in the process of relocation and subsequent repatriation.  Clearly, even if they survived the pointless ordeal, they didn’t benefit from it.   

Otters were nearly hunted to extinction because of their soft fur.  Their population plummeted from 16,000 in the late 1700s to only 50 in the 1930s.  They were listed by the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in 1977 and their population has stabilized at about 2,800.

Because of their status as a legally protected species, U.S. Fish & Wildlife decided to move them based on their belief that they would be safer.  They claimed to be concerned that the otters might be harmed by off-shore oil drilling.  One wonders if their concern might have had more to do with the fishermen who say that otters are depriving them of their catch of abalone and sea urchins. 

Fish & Wildlife published a study of their project in 2005, which acknowledged the failure of the effort, yet it took 7 years for them to get around to officially ending it.

Killing one animal to save another

Such attempts to control nature and the animals that live in it are the stock and trade of U.S. Fish & Wildlife as well as their colleagues in state agencies with a similar mission.  Here are a couple of local examples.

Northern spotted owl
Northern spotted owl

The spotted owl was given endangered species status over 25 years ago.  Logging was substantially reduced in the Pacific Northwest in an effort to save the habitat of the spotted owl, with devastating consequences for the timber-based economy.  Despite that effort, the population of spotted owls declined over 40% in the past 25 years.

So, now US Fish & Wildlife has selected a new scapegoat for the decline of the spotted owl population.  They have decided that another owl, the barred owl, is the culprit.  The barred owl is larger and its range is apparently expanding.  So, in its infinite wisdom, Fish & Wildlife recently announced that it will begin shooting barred owls where they don’t “belong” based on their assumption that the spotted owl will benefit from the removal of its competitor. (2)

Carpet bombing with rodenticides

As crazy as the plan to shoot barred owls is, here’s a plan that strikes us even worse.  In April 2011, U.S. Fish & Wildlife announced its intention to evaluate a plan to aerial bomb the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco with rodenticides to kill resident mice.  (3)

Ashy storm petrel. Creative Commons
Ashy storm petrel. Creative Commons

Here’s their logic for this strategy:  the mice are eaten by burrowing owls which don’t “belong” on the Farallones, in their opinion.  They claim that they don’t want to kill the burrowing owls because they acknowledge that they are just as rare in their historic range as the birds they claim will be saved by this bizarre plan.  They claim that when the burrowing owls eat all the mice, they start eating the eggs of the ashy storm petrel which is an equally rare bird, but it “belongs” on the Farallones, so its perceived needs trump those of the equally rare burrowing owl.  They believe that if the mice are killed, the burrowing owls will return to where Fish & Wildlife believes they belong. 

There is so much wrong with this plan that it’s difficult to know where to start.  The Farallones are an important bird sanctuary, home to many species of birds many of which are rare.  Can Fish & Wildlife guarantee that the burrowing owl is the only species of bird that will eat the poisoned mice?  How many burrowing owls will die from eating the poisoned mice?  If they don’t die, won’t they eat even more eggs of the storm petrel?  Will the death of the mice deprive other species of birds of their food?   As the rodenticide washes off the islands into the ocean, will it kill the marine life around the island?  Will it enter the food web of the entire island, killing unintended targets such as the birds that eat fish?

As crazy as this plan sounds, it is not a new strategy for Fish & Wildlife.   In 2008, 46 tons of rodenticides were dumped on an island in the Aleutian chain off the coast of Alaska.  That carpet bombing is known to have killed a total of 420 birds, including 40 bald eagles. (4)

The outcry about the birds being killed by rodenticides has been getting louder recently.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a coalition of wildlife and public health advocates has asked California’s regulator of pesticides to take rosenticides off the market.  We hope these pleas for sanity will be heeded before the Farallones are bombed with rodenticides. 

Nature is on the move

Just as humans have moved around the Earth in search of more hospitable conditions—more food, better climate, less competition—animals have done the same.  Now humans have decided that the animals must stay put.  Wherever they existed in the historic past is where they “belong.”  When animals move, man has decided they are “invasive” and they must be stopped. 

Man’s war on invasive species is accelerating because as the climate changes there is greater pressure on animals to move to find the food and habitat they need and on plants to find suitable growing conditions.  Humans are apparently unwilling or unable to do anything to stop climate change, yet they are willing and able to try to prevent plants and animals from adjusting to climate change. 

As senseless as it seems to deprive plants and animals of their survival mechanisms, this harmful approach has been immortalized in U.S. law by the Endangered Species Act.  The ESA is about 40 years old and was enacted at a time when the consequences of climate change were largely unknown.  It defines endangered species as any plant or animal that becomes rare within its historic range.  So, for example, if an animal or plant moves in response to climate change, it is often designated as an endangered species even though it may be plentiful in its new home to which it is better adapted.  And Fish & Wildlife comes to its “rescue” by trying to force it to return to its historic range to which it is no longer adapted.

As we pondered this conundrum, we were reminded of a television commercial in 1970.  Mother Nature is telling stories to her animal friends in the forest, when someone hands her a tub of margarine to taste.  She smiles sweetly and congratulates herself on how delicious butter is.  She is informed that it isn’t butter, but rather an artificial substitute.  She rises from her throne, raises her voice to scold, shoots lightning from her fingers and warns us, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”  (see this charming video here).    

Will nature punish humans for their refusal to allow it to change as needed to survive? No, not literally, of course, but perhaps we will suffer the unintended consequences of our arrogant attempts to control natural processes we do not understand.


(1)    Peter Fimrite, “Feds scrap ‘dumb idea’ of relocating otters,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 18, 2012

(2)    Associated Press, “U.S. plans to kill Barred owls to save spotted owls,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 29, 2012

(3)    Kelly Zito, “Pesticide bombing of Farallones mice stirs debate,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 12, 2011

(4)    Peter Fimrite, “Concern over fallout of bombing mice,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 2011