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Species of the Pacific: The Northern Spotted Owl

Two fuzzy baby birds with large eyes huddle together on a brown branch, with a green backdrop of tree leaves behind them.

This is post 2 of 4 in "Species of the Pacific."

Throughout this series, we explore the ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest and the wildlife who inhabit them, including the Northern Spotted Owl, the wolverine, and bullhead trout. Our newly launched Pacific Wildway aims to reconnect, restore and rewild the Pacific region so that these species and more can thrive. All posts in this series…

Right now, not far from where I sit writing in Seattle, northern spotted owl pairs in the old-growth forests of the Northwest have hatched their young and are tending to their brood. Breeding females are sitting on their nests in the cavities of broken top trees, warming and protecting their new owlets from predation, while their partners hunt and deliver prey to the nest.

Two fuzzy baby birds with large eyes huddle together on a brown branch, with a green backdrop of tree leaves behind them.
Two downy owlets perch on a tree branch. Photo: USFWS – Pacific Region

In western Washington and Oregon, as far north as British Columbia and south to Marin County, California, northern spotted owls are in their annual breeding season, which occurs between February and June, depending on specific geography. What begins as courtship between long-term mates becomes several months of frenzied activity orbiting a central nest, where success is marked by each downy owlet plummeting from the nest in a triumphant first flight: a fledging.

When the fledging matures to an adult, they are sure to be a sight to behold. As one of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic species, northern spotted owls are charismatic predators. Their hazelnut and tan colored feathers, ribbed with white, provide seamless camouflage for roosting in hemlocks and redwoods. Their sharp beaks are a bold yellow. Northern spotted owls have an inquisitive face, punctuated by two dark and curious eyes that swivel in the direction of prey. When they take flight, they weave deftly through pine and fir, their broad wingspan flexing powerfully and beating silently.

As a threatened species, the owls’ success this breeding season is being closely watched by many, particularly scientists, conservationists, and wildlife managers working to recover them. The northern spotted owl is specifically adapted to an old-growth forest ecosystem, from their diet to their nesting to their physical appearance—but with drastic changes to their habitat, the species’ future is tenuous.

Plight of the Endangered Northern Spotted Owl

The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1990. This species has also been listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s  Red List for Threatened Species since 1988. Despite decades of species conservation and management efforts in the Pacific Northwest, the species continues to decline annually by 2.4 to 5.8 percent per year on average since 1985. Scientists cite fewer than 100 pairs of northern spotted owls in British Columbia, Canada; 1,200 pairs in Oregon; 560 pairs in northern California; and 500 pairs in Washington.

A large spotted bird with big eyes perches on a thin tree branch, surrounded by other thin branches.
A northern spotted owl looks curiously at a photographer in the night. Photo: Redwood National and State Parks

Northern spotted owls face two chief threats. The species has experienced habitat loss by timber harvest and forest fragmentation. Because much of the densely canopied, mature forest structure has been significantly removed and fragmented by logging in the Northwest since the 19th century, old-growth forests of the northwest can no longer support their historical density of northern spotted owls.

Estimates from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) suggest that suitable habitat available to spotted owls over their range has been reduced by over 60 percent in the last 190 years. This dramatic habitat shrinkage has tightened the vice grip of natural selection on the northern spotted owl and heightened the competition for resources. As a result, the species faces an incredibly short timeline in which they must adapt or perish.

Alongside limited habitat, USFWS identifies the range expansion of barred owls (Strix varia) into the old growth forests of the pacific coinciding with falling numbers of northern spotted owls. Barred owls are more aggressive, and have a broader diet and wider range of suitable habitat. Because the northern spotted owl has a relatively specialist set of survival conditions, they are more vulnerable to changes in habitat, and less resilient to adapt to new conditions. The barred owl is outcompeting the northern spotted owl for resources. The USFWS is currently testing the effects of lethal removal of invasive barred owls from spotted owl habitat to see if it benefits recovery of the rare owl species and revives the ecosystem.

The health of northern spotted owl populations acts as a barometer for ecosystem health. They are an indicator species for late-successional forests in the Northwest. As such, their presence as predators in old-growth forests has a regulating effect on the density of other species; they are essential stitches in the patchwork of forest species composition. For the sake of a balanced and resilient ecosystem, it’s critical that these owls persist.

Our Solution: The Pacific Wildway

Fast and comprehensive action for northern spotted owls is our only recourse to protect this threatened species. When individual owls are environmentally stressed, their breeding rate and productivity declines, and the gene pool starts to stagnate. The process of decline compounds on itself, each new pressure giving way to an increased pressure as a consequence. In population ecology, this is called an “extinction vortex.”

The Pacific Wildway project seeks to develop a wildway with continuous structural connectivity to protect vulnerable landscapes and species.

Coined by Michael Gilpin and Michael Soulé (one of Wildlands Network’s original founders) in 1986, the extinction vortex is the interconnected and increasingly severe phases a species undergoes as it sizes downward toward extinction. The introduction of an invasive competitor and lost resources has set the Northern spotted owl on an extinction course, and remedial steps must be flexible and responsive to the species’ needs. Past trends suggest that much of the remaining unprotected habitat could disappear in 10 to 30 years.

Wildlands Network’s Pacific Wildway will encompass the entire range of the northern spotted owl.  The Pacific Wildway project seeks to develop a wildway with continuous structural connectivity to connect core reserves and increase protections on vulnerable landscapes both public and private.

Wildlands Network will also continue working with our regional partners in the Pacific Northwest to ensure that the Northwest Forest Plan—which guides management of federal forests in Washington, Oregon and California—can protect species and encompasses more diverse strategies, improving and increasing knowledge on climate impacts and connectivity. We will continue to provide a strong voice in this process as we move forward. Our regional focus prioritizes safeguarding the ever-shrinking old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, and the myriad of biodiversity these forests host.

Take Action for the Northern Spotted Owl

We are working with scientists from the University of Washington to generate a regional map that will help us identify essential connectivity pathways between core reserves—or critical habitat areas—to allow wildlife greater freedom to move and migrate on the landscape. We will use this information to direct our resources to protecting, restoring and creating a Pacific Wildway. Please consider helping us fulfill our mission: donate here.

A large spotted bird with big dark eyes looks at the photographer from a thick tree branch.
Northern Spotted Owl. Photo: Redwood National and State Parks

Wildlands Network is also working to update our forest plans within the Northwest Forest Plan amendment area by participating in the ongoing Forest Service process. We consider it a great public responsibility to participate in and on our public lands by having our voice heard. Please speak up for our wildlife by commenting, too, during the next open comment period. We will continue to provide details on our website about the next phase of the Northwest Forest Plan update process. Please check back or consider signing up for our newsletter.

If you want to be among the northern spotted owls, use Leave No Trace principles and respectful judgment. The breeding season is a fragile time for owls, and any disturbance may cause a nesting female to flush for an extended period of time, leaving her owlets vulnerable. These owls are inactive during the daytime, perched on limbs, hunkered down on nests, and camouflaged against tree trunks. An observant hiker may discern a ruffle of feathers during the daytime, or hear a hoo-hoohoo-hoo call around dusk in these locations:

Below 3,500 feet, in the lowest elevations of Mount Rainier National Park, forested canopies of Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar are home to several populations of northern spotted owls. Olympic National Park also has one of the largest intact old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, and you just might hear a northern spotted owl in the Hoh Rain Forest.

If you are lucky enough to silently observe a spotted owl from a safe distance, share your experience with us!

More posts from Species of the Pacific

  1. Exploring Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, March 16, 2018
  2. Species of the Pacific: The Northern Spotted Owl, March 19, 2018
  3. Species of the Pacific: The Wolverine, March 22, 2018
  4. Species of the Pacific: Bull Trout, April 5, 2018

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