Adult Northern Spotted Owl going home with breakfast. The Bush administration has proposed cutting 1.5 million acres of Northwest forests considered critical to the survival of the Northern Spotted Owl. On the brighter side, however, the High Desert Museum is helping to save the owls.
As if the administration's bungling of wildfires and old-growth forest mismanagement are not enough, even Mother Nature has thrown a rock through the spotted owl's window in the form of the Barred Owl, a close relative and fierce competitor. They are so closely related that mixed breeding has been reported, which has professedly produced a bird known as the "Sparred Owl."
The brightest light in the efforts to save the spotted owl from extinction is Central Oregon's High Desert Museum, located near Bend's southern end on Highway 97. Captive mom and dad owls housed at the museum, Polka and Dot, have accomplished an international first as the only Northern Spotted Owls in captivity to successfully procreate. To date they have produced a total of six baby owls, all released into the wild as adults, and one of which is reported to be a mom herself in the Roseburg area.
Polka and Dot hatched one young this year on April 10, around 4pm at the Donald M. Kerr Bird of Prey facility, then five days later their other egg hatched. The tiny owlets are of paramount importance in saving this controversial threatened species from extinction.
Visitors may also see Dot feeding pieces of mice to her owlets, while Polka watches from a perch a few feet above the nest. A passive video camera aimed into the nest allows visitors to get a bird's-eye view on an outside monitor of this fascinating and important development.
"This is an exhilarating time at the museum," said HDM President Janeanne A. Upp, "This goes to the heart of our mission of helping our visitors connect to the wildlife and natural resources of the High Desert, and become citizen stewards who can make a difference."
Museum Wildlife Curator Nolan Harvey said, "The species is close to extinction in British Columbia and overall, not doing well in the Northwest. A lot is going against the survival of these birds."
The birth also is noteworthy because of the pair's advanced age. The birds are about 24 years old, and haven't laid eggs for two years. Spotted owls have been known to live as long as 31 years in captivity, when they are well fed and cared for, and protected from predators. They typically don't live beyond 20 years in the wild.
Dot is nesting in a replica of a broken tree (snag), with a nesting area. "We put other materials into the habitat for her to pick at, but she seems to like bark mulch, and she laid her eggs, just as in the past," said Museum Wildlife Curator Nolan Harvey.
In Oregon and California, the Northern Spotted Owl population has been declining more than three percent annually from 1990 to 2005. This despite Forest Service, US Bureau of Land Management and private landowner efforts to protect the owls' old forest habitats, said Eric Forsman, a research wildlife biologist for the forest service's Pacific Northwest Research station in Corvallis known as the father of the spotted owl recovery plan.
The continued competition from the barred owl along with catastrophic forest fires, and logging are some of the factors contributing to the owl's decline. This is especially true in Canada, where loggers pay little to no concern to spotted owls. Because of these practices, the more aggressive barred owls, whoooo (pun intended) are non-selective on prey, have expanded their range from the Eastern forests into the Pacific Northwest.
"Ultimately, spotted owls are just a symbol of a much larger issue," Forsman said. "They are kind of the poster child for old forests and the conflict over how to manage federal forests. Spotted owls are such a charismatic species that people can relate to."
For details regarding viewing the spotted owls, visit www.highdesertmuseum.org, or call (541) 382-4754.