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June 21, 2004

Introducing The Spotted Form Of The Barred Owl

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and occupies more or less the same ecological niche as a duck, does it really matter if it's a duck?

Or in this case, a northern spotted owl?

Loggers have long been shut out of the northern spotted owl's habitat, but the owl protected by the Endangered Species Act is still being forced from its nesting places.

But not by man - by its cousin, the barred owl.

Ecologically, the main role of the Northern spotted owl, or the "Spotted Owl Caurina subspecies" as the nomenclature geeks would have it, is a simple one--to keep the small mammal populations from getting out of hand--a function that the Barred owl admirably fulfills for a number of mammals, among others.

...meadow voles are its main prey, followed by shrews and deer mice. Other mammals include rats, squirrels, young rabbits, bats, moles, opossums, mink, and weasels. Birds are taken occasionally, including woodpeckers, grouse, quail, jays, blackbirds, and pigeons. They also eat small fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards, crayfish, scorpions, beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers. Birds are taken as they settle into nocturnal roosts, because they cannot catch birds on the wing. They will also swoop down to the water's edge to catch frogs, other amphibians, and occasionally fish. Barred Owls are attracted to campfires and lights where they forage for large insects.

Barred Owls are slowly replacing the Northern spotted for three reasons.

1.) A Barred Owl is able to extract more of a living from a given portion of forest than a Northern Spotted can, thanks to their acceptance of a more varied diet.

2.) The very presence of a Barred Owl reduces the carrying capacity of a certain area for the Northern Spotted, as their more varied diet includes all of the species the Northern Spotted Owl preys upon. Every flying squirrel a Barred Owl eats is one removed from the pool available for the Northern Spotted.

3.) Given the chance, Barred Owls will simply eat the Northerns.

Ecologically speaking, the replacement of the Northern Spotted by the Barred Owl is no big deal. It's even possible that the term "replacement" is in and of itself incorrect--because the increasing number of Barred/Spotted owl matings calls into question the taxonomic classifications that declare the Barred and Spotted to be different species.

A species is defined biologically as a group of animals that produce offspring that are also capable of reproducing. Lions and tigers, though closely related, produce sterile offspring when mated, so they are considered separate species.

Barred and Spotted owls, on the other hand, produce offspring when they mate that are quite capable of carrying on the family line. This is important, for in taxonomic circles there are precedents when it comes to redefining species previously considered separate as one and the same.

The Dark-eyed Junco includes five forms that were once considered separate species. The "slate-colored junco" is the grayest, found from Alaska to Texas and eastward. The "Oregon junco" is boldly marked blackish and brown, with a distinct dark hood, and is found in the western half of the continent. The "gray-headed junco" has a brown back and gray sides and lives in the central Rocky Mountains. The "white-winged junco" is all gray with white wingbars, and breeds only near the Black Hills of South Dakota. The "Guadalupe junco" of Baja California is dull and brownish.

One could make a very strong argument that, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as a Northern Spotted Owl, that the birds now classified as such are no more a species separate from the Barred Owl than the Oregon Juncos was from the Guadalupe.

Politically speaking, all hell is about to break loose. The Barred Owl is neither threatened or endangered. If it replaces the Northern Spotted Owl, either by driving the Northern from its range or by taxonomic fiat, the protection extended to the old growth forests by the Endangered Species Act would vanish. Logging wouldn't immediately resume in the old growth forests of the Northwest, but the main arrow in the environmentalists' quiver would be gone, and the current administration in Washington is hardly likely to give them time to find new ones.

Posted by Bigwig at June 21, 2004 03:03 PM | TrackBack
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At this point, I think it would be entirely appropriate to mention the fine work of a fellow Hokie discussing the barred owl vs. Northern spotted owl issue:

Posted by: Josh Crockett at June 21, 2004 05:37 PM

Will the Barred Owl nest in K-Mart signs?

The "sensitive" Northern Spotted Owl would.

Posted by: Andy Freeman at June 22, 2004 12:50 PM
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