Barred Owls: An Ethical Dilemma

Barred Owls & Biodiversity within a Changing Landscape

An Ethical Dilemma

In mid-October, I encountered my first owl carcass from afar. I was driving south on Highway 101 near Ona Beach. Just before entering the left turn lane for Beaver Creek Road, I spotted the road kill.

Not a deer, not a coyote, not an opossum, not a rabbit — I ticked down the list of common collision victims, inching closer. There was a short gap in oncoming traffic, and I was short on time. I made the left turn without coming to any final identification.

However, an image stuck with me: a raptor, flying low across the highway, chasing its prey of choice between two marshy areas, apparently oblivious to the tendencies of machines en route. Later that day, I heard from someone who had made the same turn and taken the time to investigate, that the deceased body was in fact a raptor -— a Barred owl, Strix varia.

In the Pacific Northwest, it is becoming commonly known that Barred owls are invaders, with sightings in Oregon starting in the early 70’s. Our once endless forests of old-growth supported their now threatened native cousins, the Spotted owl, Strix occidentalis. With pristine habitat now less dominant on the landscape, Barred owls moved in from eastern North America. Here, they are in direct competition with the already vulnerable populations of Spotted owls, stealing their nests and attacking them in the air.

When I first learned of all this, in an introductory ecology class, my professor couldn’t help but jokingly parallel the invasion to the feelings many Northwesterners get seeing more and more out-of-staters move in. Having grown up in Oregon, I check myself when my gut reactions to increasing costs of living involve somewhat nativist inclinations. Though I doubt my professor would’ve called for such recognition when determining what is ecologically correct, any lingering grief for the road kill owl was not diminished upon learning it was invasive.

Since spotting the carcass, I suppose I’ve been primed to see Barred owls in the news. In October, the Associated Press released an article about a federal program controversially shooting Barred owls in select locations, to determine if Spotted owls – listed as threatened in the Endangered Species Act in 1990 — would benefit from their removal. At the time the article was published, over 2,400 Barred owls were reported as being culled since the experiment began in 2015.

Soon enough, I began noticing that members of the email listserv Oregon Birders Online, or OBOL, were also taking note of what seemed like an increase in Barred owl carcasses. Between late September and late October, four people reported finding beached Barred owls in Manzanita and Bandon, and in early November, someone posted about a road kill Barred owl in Klamath Falls.

Some OBOL members were quick to make the connection between the government culling program and the apparent uptick in beached Barred owls. This was mostly rejected, with the understanding that such a rigorous experiment would be unlikely to leave any carcasses behind, unless they were too difficult to retrieve. Others commented that it seemed to mostly be juvenile Barred owls being found, then postulated that since this is a time of year when young disperse and begin feeding entirely on their own, perhaps the dead owls were ones that did not successfully learn to hunt without avoiding both natural and human traps.

Others noted that volunteer citizen scientists with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team had tallied 60 Barred owl carcasses found on their survey beaches between Northern California and Alaska since 1999. Deciding to take a finer look at COASST’s publicly-available online data, I saw that no beached Barred owls had been found on the Oregon Coast between the Columbia and Siuslaw Rivers until 2008, and since then, between one and four were recorded each year. With this in mind, I began to doubt that the amount of Barred owl carcasses seen by others and myself this year is unusually high. Still, there was a lingering grief.

Barred owls have become a neighborhood bird to me. In the rural coast towns in which I’ve lived, I have steadily shared the quiet company of a Barred owl as a neighbor. One I would see during dusky hours in the same tree along the long gravel driveway I took on the way to and from work. Another I would more often hear, in the forest up the hill from my rental. The Barred owl call is often compared to a voice saying “who cooks for you? who cooks for you all?” Learning this has perhaps contributed to my association of Barred owls with home.

Amidst what feels like a growing conversation about how society should manage nature, in the face of continuing development and climate change, I wonder if the Barred owl call does not also call into question how humankind places value on the more-than-human world. While no one would claim that owls cook for anyone, they certainly do have a way of feeding the soul, whether or not this is what is right for the local ecology. Should we ignore the pulls at our heartstrings in order to continue heartfelt efforts at protecting biodiversity in an increasingly fragmented environment?

Commentary by Ari Blatt