The recent winner of our photo contest photographed a barred owl sitting on the branch of a redwood tree – an image difficult to capture as owls are more often heard than seen. But this image raises the question of the status of barred owls in our redwood forests. Are they now considered natural, part of our landscape, or are they still invaders displacing our threatened, native spotted owls?
Barred owls are originally from old, undisturbed forests of the eastern United States. They live in mature forests near water and use large, dead trees for nest cavities. Since the early 1900s they have been moving west, possibly due to man-made changes which have created more suitable habitat for these birds. Some believe that as settlement occurred in the Great Plains, landscapes were altered and riparian forests were created, providing corridors for the barred owl to move west. Another thought is that with fire suppression in the west, the trees grew taller, creating suitable nesting habitats. Once they came south into California’s redwood forests, they started competing with the spotted owl and have been credited to aiding the decline of the spotted owl population. The barred owl is more aggressive than the spotted owl and has out-competed them for nest sites and food resources, and even started hybridizing with them.
In an effort to control the barred owl population and save the spotted owl, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may start killing barred owls in the Pacific Northwest this fall. This brings up many questions on non-native species management and what to do with an animal that seems to now be part of the native landscape. Should we kill one species to save another? If we kill the barred owl is the spotted owl going to come back, or is it just going to make way for more barred owls to enter the forest ecosystem? This is an experiment one California landowner conducted on their private redwood forest. Over a three-year period they killed barred owls and saw that the spotted owls reclaimed their territories once their competition was gone. But this is no guarantee this will happen throughout the range of the spotted owl.
In some cases, it is easy to predict that man-made changes in nature will alter the dynamics of an ecosystem, such as a dam being built or a forest being cut down. But in the case of the barred owl and natural westward expansion over the past 100 years – who could have predicted the impact that would have on one of our iconic, treasured species of the redwood forest?
At what cost do we continue to try and fix the mistakes of our past?