Barred owls, spotted owls, and the value of a life

Barred owls, spotted owls, and the value of a life

by Spenser Smith March 16, 2019 2 Comments

May 7, 2017

Two kilometres into my hike at Morrell Nature Sanctuary in Nanaimo, I am gasping for air. The trails here are not challenging but I am not your typical British Columbian hiker: I have a club foot, I have asthma, and my nose is in desperate need of a septoplasty so air can flow through both nostrils instead of one. I’ve also spent most of my twenty-six years in the flatness of Saskatchewan, and walking against even a slight incline feels like climbing Mount Everest. But, tripod and camera slung over my shoulder, I have a mission: find and photograph my first barred owl.

A few weeks back, a friend on Instagram told me the location of a great horned owl nest. I spent several days in awe photographing the family of owls, focusing on the fuzzy, bumbling juveniles. It was my first time seeing an owl of any kind in the wild, and the experience pulled me away from landscape photography and into the world of birds. On this warm May evening, I am not only trying to photograph my second species of owl—I am trying to find an owl on my own.

I scan the surrounding trees for the shape of an owl. The 111 hectares of second-growth forest is overwhelming. I don’t spend more than a few seconds glancing at each tree along the path, and don’t spend any time on the trees beyond the path—mathematically, it’s not practical. I’m not sure how many trees are in this forest, but there must be tens of thousands.

A sign near the start of the hike lists the most common birds found at Morrell, including barred owls. It states that while barred owls are difficult to spot, they are usually found on Tranquility Trail. So, that is the trail I have been trekking for the last hour. I am also armed with a tip from my Instagram friend: listen for nearby birds, especially robins. He said smaller birds “mob” owls to ward them off, which, in addition to dive bombing, includes aggressive chirping. Follow the chirping, he said, and you will most likely find an owl.

A fat, black slug oozes its way across the path. It’s the most intimate interaction I’ve had with wildlife today, and I am careful not to step on it. A few squirrels have climbed the intricate system of trunks and branches above my head, but they scurried away as soon as I dared to take another step.

It’s 7:35 p.m when I reach the end of the trail, only an hour away from sunset, but I still haven’t found a barred. I turn around and head backwards. I am frustrated—a new birder in the age of instant gratification. Finding a bird in the wild is much different than searching for it on YouTube. Yet, my brain tells me that the process, in difficulty and time spent, should be similar.

I walk quickly without checking trees and instead hope chirping birds will assist my search. It only takes twenty-five minutes to get back to where my hike started.

No birds. No owls. I want to give up.

Before I leave for home, I decide to take a walk around the short entrance trail that connects to Tranquility Trail and the steeper Rocky Knoll Trail. It’s almost sunset now, and it’s my last chance to find an owl and capture a photograph before the ensuing darkness.

Something glides out of the trees to my left, through the clearing of the path, and into the trees to my right. I run over and glance into the maze of trees. A barred owl has perched on a wooden post one hundred feet away.

The owl is too far away to get a decent photo, and I will have to leave the well-groomed path to get closer. One too-loud movement and the owl could fly away.

I enter the greenery, sword ferns beneath my skate shoes, and inch towards the owl. It’s facing away from me. Then, ten feet in, I step on a fallen branch, sending a crack and echo into the air. The owl swivels its head, looks at me, but doesn’t budge from the post. An army of American robins chirp at their potential predator.

I keep moving, being as delicate as I can while balancing a tripod and camera on my shoulder. When I’m only fifty feet away, I set down my gear.

Puffing, I repeatedly click the shutter button on my camera. The owl stares at me with large, dark brown eyes. I stare back. We are two animals with forward-facing eyes who share a common ancestor somewhere in our evolutionary histories. It’s watching me, unlike birds with eyes on the side of their head, as much as I am watching it.

A barred owl is perched on a wooden post.

I wonder what kind of information it’s gathering, whether or not it looks at me as a potential predator. Morrell is a popular park, and I’m not the first human the owl has locked eyes with. Judging by its seemingly calm reaction, I imagine it views the great horned owl as more of a threat than me.

I move forward to reconfigure my tripod. Spooked, the owl takes one last look and flies off—silent, deep into the woods.

A few weeks later, I learn barred owls are newcomers to British Columbia, like me. In sections of old growth forest in B.C. and several U.S. states, they are considered invasive and are culled in government programs. If I was a biologist in one of these jurisdictions, I might have a shotgun in my hands instead of a camera.

***

Traditionally found only in eastern North America, barred owls were first recorded in B.C. in 1943. Today, over seventy years later, they are the most common owl in the province and the Pacific Northwest. The most prominent theory explaining the range expansion is that increases in forest in the Great Plains, primarily due to settlers planting trees and suppressing fires historically set by Indigenous peoples, bridged the gap between east and west. Before, there weren’t enough trees in the Great Plains for barred owls to forage for food and hide from predators if they wanted to move westward.

My reason for moving to British Columbia from Saskatchewan: attend a residential treatment centre for addiction. At twenty-two-years-old, it was my sixth attempt at recovery and luckily my last. I’m coming up on five years sober this year, and probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t moved here.

Barred owls have a cousin species in the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl. To the average observer, the two birds are hard to differentiate. Both have round heads without ear tufts, brown eyes, and identical proportions. The main difference is that spotted owls sport a spotted feather pattern instead of a striped one and have a dark brown complexion compared to the barred owl’s light brown and grey.

A northern spotted owl.

A northern spotted owl. Photo by Frank D. Lospalluto.

Before the widespread arrival of barred owls to B.C., spotted owl populations were rapidly declining due to the logging of old-growth forests, the only habitat in which the species can survive. Barred owls, on the other hand, thrive in a range of habitats, including urban ones, which is one of the reasons their range expansion has been so successful. When barred owls arrived in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, spotted owl populations declined further. Spotted owls are now considered endangered in B.C.

Both owl species are territorial and will not withstand each other’s presence. However, it’s the larger, more adaptable barred owl that wins out. Barred owls chase spotted owls from their territory, sometimes killing them. While barred owls are generalist predators, eating anything from rabbits to crayfish to domestic cats, spotted owls are pickier and only eat prey from old-growth forests, such as northern flying squirrels. When spotted owls are forced from their already dwindling old-growth homes, they struggle to survive.

In 2013, B.C. approved the relocation and shooting of select barred owls to help save spotted owls. Barred owls can only be shot in known spotted owl territory, which is small. The vast majority of barred owls won’t be affected. Oregon, Washington, and California have similar programs.

Today, there are only between twelve and twenty wild northern spotted owls left in B.C.

My gut instinct says these programs are wrong. I feel bad for spotted owls, but I feel even worse for barred owls. They did nothing other than listen to their evolutionary survival instincts.

However, I’m not an expert.

***

February 1, 2018

I am in the office of Dr. Eric Demers, professor and co-chair of Biology at Vancouver Island University (VIU), the same school I attend as a creative writing student. Behind his desk is a small, wooden owl figure. On the outside of his window, Anna’s hummingbirds flutter and drink human-made nectar from a feeder.

“It's always contentious when you have to control one animal to maintain another,” Dr. Demers says. He has short, trim brown hair and is wearing a nondescript collared shirt.

He lists cats, dogs, rats, and even pigs as examples of animals introduced by humans that are sometimes eradicated when protecting endangered bird species endemic to certain islands.

I notice a difference between his example and the barred owl-spotted owl situation. Barred owls weren’t transplanted by human hands—they flew to the Pacific Northwest on their own.

Without a science background, I’m slightly terrified to make this point to a scientist. I’m also scared of the answer. I want there to be a difference to support my stance on the cull. But, after a mental deep breath, I go ahead and ask if the barred owl’s mode of arrival makes a difference, ethically, when deciding whether or not to cull them.

He says that “whether you take a cat and a rat and you put 'em in a box and you bring them 500 miles somewhere else and let 'em go, or you develop cities and change land practices,” there is one common denominator: human interference.

Although, he does agree there is a distinction.

“I mean, [barred owls are] a native species, so I think it is treated a little differently than if it's a totally introduced species that's brought from somewhere else, that's naturalized, but not endemic.”

Dr. Demers insists such ethical dilemmas are at the core of conservation biology.

“None of this is black and white, or ‘in this case, you do this. In this case, you never cross that line.’ It's always a lot greyer than that. So we have to accept some level of responsibility for what's happening and then decide how much we value the resource that we're trying to save. Then the ethical question becomes: is it better to not interfere and then let things just go extinct…or do we recognize that there's value in those species, even though they're in low numbers, and then try to maintain that?”

When making a choice to intervene, Dr. Demers says, evidence-based research is crucial.

I buy what Dr. Demers is saying. I understand that, when deciding to kill an animal to save another, serious research and consideration is conducted. But still, there is something that troubles me about pointing a gun to a beautiful bird of prey and pulling the trigger.

I ask Dr. Demers if conservation biologists grapple with their emotional connection to animals and the nature of their job.

“Oh, for sure. I think [destroying barred owls] is the same as conservation officers who often have to destroy bears and cougars that never asked to be destroyed. I mean, they've basically just happened to encroach on an area, found a food source, which, usually, we leave out, and then they become habituated. They become a problem, a nuisance. I mean, again, they never asked for that.”

“They're very difficult, ethical dilemmas that [conservation biologists] have to work with, and they do receive extensive training in that.”

In 2013, Dr. Demers started the VIU Banding Project, a program that allows biology students to monitor bird populations in Nanaimo. Birds are caught in mist nets, numbered bands are placed around their legs, and measurements are taken before they’re released. According to the project’s website, “nearly 50% of bird species in Canada [are] experiencing population declines."

He says that it took him sixteen years living on the West Coast to see a northern pygmy-owl. I tell him about my owl photography and that I was lucky enough to photograph a northern pygmy-owl last summer.

As a new birder, I am curious about how Dr. Demers became interested in birds.

“Ironically, my brother had a small pellet gun. I wasn't very old. I was probably seven or eight. Back then, parents let you do anything. I just grabbed it, and then I was walking around. I saw, on the water, there was a robin. I thought, ‘I can scare it by shooting beside it.’ Well, the thing was so poorly aimed that I actually shot it right out. Pop, dead. I just cried.”

Here is someone who has studied biology his entire life, specialized in ornithology, and yet his introduction to birds was killing one. It’s surprising, yet captures our complex relationships with animals.

I don’t think my moral dilemma can be solved by science alone. The best science can do is prove that killing barred owls has a positive effect on spotted owl populations. But that’s not the core of my concern, even though I would love for spotted owls to survive. Rather, it’s about further human intervention in the hopes mitigating the effects of past human intervention. It’s about innocence, a surprisingly hazy concept in the animal world. It’s about the act of killing itself—pointing and pulling triggers.

I am not innocent. From youth to adulthood, high to sober, Regina to Nanaimo, the way I interact and treat animals has evolved. It’s still evolving. To find answers, I need to get to the heart of what it means to have a relationship with an animal.

***

July 27, 2017

A juvenile barred owl sits still on a low-hanging branch, its eyes locked on a grey rabbit only fifteen feet away. The rabbit, unaware of its predator, chomps grass—business as usual. Minutes earlier, my photography companions, Matt and Gerry, watched this same owl almost snatch a small, leashed dog from its owner who was too busy talking on her cellphone to notice. But, at the last moment of the young owl’s dramatic swoop over the dog, the bird changed its mind.

A barred owl on a branch.

“This is our chance to get a National Geographic shot,” Matt says, examining the proximity of the owl and rabbit.

Matt is an old friend from Regina. He moved to Nanaimo nine months ago to sober up. Years ago, while using drugs together, taking photos of birds for fun would have been laughable.

Following the owl has lead us from the thick forest to the tennis court parking lot of Bowen Park in central Nanaimo. The parking lot, with its lack of tree cover, offers ideal light conditions to shoot.

On the concrete, Matt and I lie on our stomachs about twenty feet from the rabbit, angling our cameras for the best view. Gerry, thirty years older than us, stands. He takes a 90-degree angle to Matt and me, anticipating a different flight and attack pattern. We’re all friends in recovery from addiction, but tonight, we’re doing our best professional wildlife photographer impressions.

Shockingly, the owl hasn’t moved yet. It’s still on the branch, observing the rabbit. We consider the owl’s youth and failed dog snatching, and come to a conclusion: the juvenile is learning to hunt.

As a group, our energy is palpable. We’re laughing, joking, smiling. We’ve spent an evening taking owl photos, and now, we’re about to watch the most primal part of nature: the acquisition of energy needed to survive and the theft of a life to do so.

“Watching owls on a Friday night is much better than sitting at home watching TV,” Gerry says. He’s balding, and the hair he has left is greying, but there is more adventure in his bones than most twenty-year-olds.

“Do you think it’s messed up how excited we are about this bunny getting killed?” Matt asks.

The owl swoops. The rabbit, in incredible anticipation of the owl’s arrival, jumps at least four feet to dodge the attack. It sprints across the parking lot in search of shelter. Another juvenile barred owl appears out of a different tree and dive bombs. However, the owl sibling also misses its target, not even prompting a jump from the rabbit. For now, the prey survives.

Eyes glued to our camera screens, we flip through our shots. Unfortunately, most of mine are blurry and out of focus. The owl, silent and motionless for minutes, made its decision to attack without giving us photographers a heads up.

To feel better about the missed opportunity, I tell myself that even if the shots were sharp and in focus, the cement foreground would have made the photographs seem unnatural. In the world of wildlife photography, it’s best to have your subjects away from tennis court parking lots.

Even if the rabbit and owl encounter had happened in pristine forest, I’m not sure how “natural” it would be. The rabbits in Nanaimo are feral pet bunnies, a species originally domesticated in Western Europe. Barred owls would likely not have spread to B.C. without human interference. And what about me? Do I, an ancestor of European settlers, fit the destructive bill of “invasive species"?

***

Summer, 2002

There was an anthill across the street from my childhood home in Regina. The pile of brown dirt in the crack of a sidewalk had a tiny hole on top, an entrance to a subterranean world I could never see or experience. Still, as a kid, I was fascinated by the comings and goings. There was always a steady stream of black bodies dashing to and from the hole, sometimes carrying bits of food, sometimes carrying away the dead.

One summer day, I brought my mom’s tape dispenser to the anthill. Whenever an ant left home, I pinned it to the sidewalk with a piece of tape. I watched my experiment subjects attempt to move, legs scurrying to no avail. Ants can carry up to 5,000 times their weight, but their extraordinary strength was useless against the sticky traps of a ten-year-old.

I was in grade four with a bedtime I believed was two hours too early, and my parents wouldn’t buy me CDs with “Explicit Content" warnings. Yet, just outside my house, I could exercise control over a colony of animals.

That same year, my parents bought bug collecting kits for me and my younger brother, Turner. The kits included plastic forceps to pick up insects and a clear plastic container with air vents to house them. While Turner was catching all types of wasps, spiders, and grasshoppers, I was focused on creating the perfect habitat inside my container. I made a soft, even layer of dirt on the plastic floor. In the corner, I crafted a small pond. I pulled handfuls of grass from the lawn for food and added a couple of twigs as climbing instruments in case the soon-to-be-caught bugs needed to stretch their legs.

The idea that I could potentially make a comfortable and successful home for insects was much more exciting than trapping them with tape. In fact, I wanted the satisfaction of knowing that my particular arrangement of dirt, water, grass, and twigs was crucial to their survival.

***

Take away conservation biology, and humans still make decisions about what animals live and die—especially those we consume. Some of us eat pork. Others, due to religious restrictions, don’t. While lacking human reasoning, spotted owls eat northern flying squirrels, but, unlike the generalist barred owl, won’t touch a domestic cat.

My parents barbecued steak so often when I was a kid that I complained. My opposition wasn’t based on ideology. I just liked hamburgers and hotdogs better, and didn’t understand why we couldn’t eat them instead. My parents included vegetables in our meals and would always ask if I wanted any, but I’d refuse.

I’m still the snot-nosed kid who says no to veggies. But today, my partner Sarah is the recipient of my whining. She usually convinces me to eat some. I’m just old enough to consider my long-term health. If chomping down on some broccoli (or “little trees," as my parents called them to make them more appealing) will help me live a little longer, so be it.

I love animals, and, on the surface, vegetarianism is appealing. I hate the idea of animals suffering in the cramped and cruel conditions of factory farms. But still, I eat meat from the cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens raised in such places. I can disconnect from the harsh realities of the animals I eat because I’m disconnected from their lives. I don’t see them alive. I don’t see them raise their young. I don’t spend day and night searching forests for them with a tripod and a backpack full of camera gear.

What if I had spent the summer of 2017 photographing northern spotted owls instead of barred owls? Would my emotional loyalty be with the endangered species instead of the invasive one? Probably. Perhaps without an emotional connection to barred owls, I could better rationalise their cull.

***

December 2011

I’m sitting on the floor of my basement bedroom, surrounded by rotting food, broken glass, and unidentifiable garbage. The baseboards behind my back are lined with mould, giving off a musty, noxious odour. I hold a piece of aluminium foil to my mouth, flick the flame of my lighter underneath it, and inhale the streaming smoke.

Snowball, my family’s eleven-year-old American Eskimo, whines outside my door. I’m the only one home, and he wants in my room with me.

I light the foil and suck in again. My eyes vibrate, and I can hardly breathe. I’m smoking methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), also known as bath salts, a psychosis-inducing stimulant.

Snowball cries and scratches the door.

I can’t let him in. Sometimes MDPV powder drops on the floor, and I don’t want him to get any on his paws. I also don’t want him digging in the mounds of trash. But mostly, I don’t want him to see me like this.

My parents bought Snowball on a whim in 2000. After lunch at the mall, we walked past a pet store and saw a fluffy, pure white puppy behind glass. A couple of hours later, our family had our first dog. We named him Snowball because his fur was so white we could hardly see him when he ran around in the snow.

I’ve ruined almost all my relationships from stealing and lying. Snowball, though, is my best and only friend. Taking him for walks, seeing the happiness in his eyes while he roams the neighbourhood, is my favourite thing in the world.

I have a photograph of Snowball from a family camping trip in 2007. I shot it with my first ever DSLR camera. In the photo, he had just walked out of the trailer. He’s looking up, his white fur in contrast with the burnt yellow background from the surrounding field, smiling.

Snowball cries again. There’s a light thud at the base of my door, which means he’s probably lying down. He’s been out there for a couple of hours. I hope my grandma visits soon so she can spend time with him.

***

March 16, 2018

An Anna’s hummingbird is perched on a tall, thin branch full of buds. Its iridescent feathers change colour as it shifts its head. When it looks away from me, the hummingbird’s crown is bright red. When it looks at me, it’s deep purple.

One of the most fun aspects of bird photography is the little discoveries you make with observation. After watching Anna's hummingbirds last year, I noticed they fly back and forth between three or four favourite perches. To get close-up shots of this skittish four-inch bird like the ones I’m taking now, I wait quietly near a favourite perch until it arrives again. 

It’s almost spring, which means my second year of photographing owls will soon begin. Most of Vancouver Island’s owl species are in courtship or nesting, including barred owls. It’s the best period to look for owls because they are highly active and vocal.

I haven’t found an owl on Vancouver Island in 2018. I’ve been shooting the hummingbirds behind Morrell Nature Sanctuary instead. Anna’s hummingbirds, located along the west coast of North America, are common in Nanaimo. So common I’d forgotten how striking they are.

The one in front of me shimmers. It sings its screechy song, a sequence of buzzes that I’d expect to hear from a cell phone instead of a bird. Soon after, it darts beyond my eyesight.

Bird photography is like a collecting hobby in that rare birds, like rare coins or rare baseball cards, have a higher value. Many bird photographers, including myself, focus on birds of prey like owls, eagles, hawks, and falcons. But this Anna’s hummingbird is a good reminder that common doesn’t mean insignificant.

Two hours of shooting (and a full memory card) later, I trek back to my car in the Morrell parking lot. The tall powerlines along the path frame a mostly cloudless sky.

After I leave the direct sunlight for the cool, shady forest, I reach a metal gate and enter back into the sanctuary. I hear the unmistakable sound of two barred owls calling each other: a booming, raucous series of hoos that famously sound like “who cooks for you?”

The calls are loud. I race toward the source of the nearest one. They continue vocalising for thirty or so seconds, aiding my search, then stop.

I walk closer to where I think one of the owls was calling from, scanning the branches of the surrounding trees. Fifty feet high on the branch of a mossy Douglas-fir, there’s a tail of a barred owl.

I go to the other side of the tree to get a better view, and the owl cranks its head to look down at me. It has two rings around its dark eyes, with a streak in-between them. The penetrating sun lights half of its body.

The owl is not in a great position to photograph, but I don’t care. I’m just happy to be near one. Since barred owls keep the same mate for life and live in the same territory each year, it’s likely one of the two adult barred owls I photographed here last year.

I imagine pointing a shotgun at the two curious eyes staring at me. I could never pull the trigger.

I’m still working on my animal relationships. When I arrive home this evening, the first thing I’ll do is feed Tiggy, Sarah's 18-year-old cat she’s had since she was seven. Tiggy has kidney failure, so I’ll have to mix her meds, Sementra and Gabapentin, into her wet, mushy food. Every time I do so, I think about Snowball. He died in 2014 while I was living in Nanaimo, and I never had a chance to say goodbye. Today, I’m grateful for the opportunity to help Tiggy during her last days.

***

After a successful freedom of information request, I uncovered the exact numbers of B.C.'s barred owl cull: between 2007 and 2017, 52 barred owls were killed and 137 were captured and relocated. I know I said my moral dilemma can’t be solved by science alone, but here's a little science. I found a 2017 study, “Can culling Barred Owls save a declining Northern Spotted Owl population?" in a journal called Natural Resource Modeling. It answers its title question with this: “Even with culling Barred Owls and all other factors remaining the same, Barred Owls and Spotted Owls cannot coexist in the long run, thus complete elimination of the Barred Owl population is required for conservation of the Spotted Owl population.”

Killing a few barred owls, while unsettling, is one thing. Killing every single one is another.

I have relationships with barred owls, but I wonder about people who have relationships with spotted owls. Maybe, right now, there’s a spotted owl fifty feet high in an old-growth red cedar. Maybe there’s an old birder underneath, watching the species with the same wonder he felt when he was young, wondering if he will be one of the last British Columbians to do so.




Spenser Smith
Spenser Smith

Author

Spenser Smith is a writer, wildlife photographer, and Vancouver Island University student. His work has appeared in Maclean's, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, and The Puritan. In 2017, he won the Blodwyn Memorial Prize in poetry.



2 Responses

Spenser Smith
Spenser Smith

March 17, 2019

Thank you for reading, Lee Anne!

Lee Anne Smith
Lee Anne Smith

March 17, 2019

I was touched by your writing and your photos. Thanks!

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