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The Barred Owl Dilemma: How one bird got the short end of the stick over the course of history 

The Barred Owl gets blamed for everything.

click to enlarge natural-world_barred-owl--terry-gray.jpg

There was a time when people looked at birds as just something to eat, like the passenger pigeon, with an estimated 5 billion birds in the mid 1800s, but extinct by 1914 because of over hunting and greed.

In those heady days, anything and everything swimming, flying, crawling, creeping or hopping was fair game for food, fun and profit. But the greatest sportsman ever - who just happened to be president of the United States, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (by today's political bent, the most unlikely Republican you'd ever meet) - saved the day. He established wildlife refuges and instigated laws that offered protection for our wildlife resources. Well, most of them; the wolf didn't get on the list.

Back when Gifford Pinchot, the father of the Forest Service (another strange Republican), was establishing forest preserves all across America, the Timber Barons were out to get all they could before Pinchot, Teddy and John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) slowed them down.

The huge open spaces where trees once grew were wide open, and native plants, rodents and birds moved in by the jillions. The barred owl, strix varia, being an opportunist, ate rodents and birds until they were stuffed to the eyeballs. As a result, the owls multiplied and expanded their range from New England into New York, Ohio, Canada and wandered westward, eventually arriving in Central Oregon.

During their travels through cutover lands, they also fed on small animals in pristine old-growth forests of the West and bumped into a close cousin of theirs, the northern spotted owl. But that didn't bother them, they just moved in, ate the spotted owl's food and stayed; it's the way nature runs things.

In time, the strain on our forests for timber kept the wood products industry busy seeking trees to supply lumber in growing North America. In so doing, millions of acres of ancient, old-growth trees (also known as owl habitat) went to saw mills for lumber, and the barred owl kept moving west.

Then, in the '60s the barred owl's close cousin - the northern spotted owl - made the headlines when it was placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species List. It also made the timber industry madder than a drunk trying to go up a spiral staircase. The timber people yowled that the spotted owl was putting them out of business, and to prove their point, they laid off mill workers and blamed the owls. They didn't bother to say anything about foreign competition, failing lumber markets, mill automation and shipping raw logs overseas having anything to do with layoffs, it was handier to blame the spotted owl.

The result of ES status for the northern spotted owl saved millions of acres of old-growth forest, albeit a tiny remnant of the ancient forests that once grew in the West, plus, all that effort made the little spotted owl a major wildlife investment. Then entered the wandering barred owl from the East, and all hell broke loose.

When northern spotted owls and Barred owls share the same environment, spotted owls come out suckin' hind tit, out-competed and out-numbered, leading to decreased populations of the native spotted owls. To make things worse, the two owls are very close genetically and therefore have been known to interbreed, the hybrids known as, sparred owls.

On April 5, 2007, biologists of the USFWS stated that shooting barred owls would help the efforts to save the northern spotted owl. The proposal called for 18 sites to be constructed in northern spotted owl territory, where 12 to 32 owls could be shot at each site. Blaming barred owls for the decreasing population in northern spotted owls would mean less attention paid to habitat protection, and logging could be resumed in protected spotted owl areas. Right? But there's another slant you should hear, that from Tumalo resident Miriam Lipsitz's delight with seeing a barred owl in her backyard:

"I was in the kitchen and noticed a blob in the juniper tree close to the kitchen in plain sight. It was a barred owl fast asleep. I grabbed my binoculars and watched the owl for an hour-and-a-half! I didn't see anything exciting happen, but I did burn my potatoes for dinner because I didn't want to move from my spot, and the best part was watching the owl wake up for the night. It got too dark for me to see it take off and I finally had to quit - but it was great fun."

And the government wants to shoot them...


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