Published July 18, 2010
Barred owls known for aggressive waysTHE OLYMPIAN
At dusk, we walked briskly through a mature second-growth forest following a winged shadow and a noisy mob. Birds were warning others of a predator and actively harassing the barred owl in hopes that it would move on. Many familiar with the impact of barred owls in Western Washington’s old-growth and second-growth forests hope they move on, too, so that the Northern spotted owl might survive. But hope won’t affect this owl, generally blamed for the rapid decline of spotted owls because of its aggressive nature and use of deadly force. The barred’s East Coast range exploded in the second half of the 20th century, and was first recorded in Eastern Washington in 1965 and Western Washington in 1973. Biologists fear that it may already be too late to save the spotted owl, losing out to talons rather after winning against chainsaws. In this state, it’s estimated that there are fewer than half of the 1980s population of spotted owls in the areas where barred owls thrive and are on the edge of a hostile takeover. Big and beautiful, the barred owl is about 15 percent larger than spotted owls, hatch more owlets sooner than spotted owls, are comfortable in second-growth as well as old-growth forests (traditional spotted owl territory), are more aggressive, and have a more varied menu. Researchers have tried to find an answer. At this point, deadly force is on the table; an environmental analysis will be done. But can we kill one species to protect another? EIGHT-HOOTER Under the picture-worth-a-thousand-words category, friends gave me a photograph of a confident barred owl perched on top of their bird feeder. Later it was seen on several mornings in nearby trees. Human movement in the house or down the path, a curious cat and irritated birds didn’t ruffle its calm demeanor, punctured only by yawns and near-360-degree twisting of its head. The barred owl also has been called the eight-hooter because its calls often come in a series of eight. Other names include swamp owl, hoot owl and rain owl. Barred owls are medium-to-large owls with round heads (no ear tufts), horizontal striping on the breasts and vertical stripes on the bellies. An adult is 16 to 35 inches with a wingspan of 38 to 50 inches. While they are most active at night, they also call and hunt during the day. The monogamous owls employ the sit-and-wait hunting philosophy until they spot a prey and swoop down with a few slow, silent wing beats for a meal, which they eat whole. Barred owls nest (if a few feathers can be considered a nest) in tree cavities but will resort to hawk or squirrel nests. Owlets are called branchers when, not ready to fly, they use their beaks and talons to reach a branch where they stay for a week or more before trying their wings. Attempting to put words to bird calls is proof that calls are in the ears of the beholder. Among the descriptions of a barred owl call: “who cooks for-you, who cooks for-you all” and hoo, hoo, too-HOO, too-HOO, ooo.” Take your pick or make up your own but know that barred owls can let loose with several other sounds. SPOTTED OWLS In a short test, Northern California researchers shot seven barred owls near abandoned spotted owl nests. Spotted owls returned to every nest. Is it right to kill barred owls to keep spotted owls from extinction, assuming that the barred owls are the last straw? What do you think? Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 for www.songandword.com.