Speakers’ Corner – An Oasis for Owls

A year ago in June, a guest staying with us took a wonderful video at the main Powdermill building of a young owl sitting in a tree and looking like it was learning to fly.  Owls are so lovely and unique among birds in having eyes that face forward like ours.  They are raptors, belonging to the same family of birds as hawks, eagles, kites, vultures, and falcons.  This year, I have heard the owls around us, but I rarely see them, and see only signs of their hunting. But how amazing is it having owls in your garden? Powdermills is possibly an oasis for birds as we have a wide variety.

In reading an article in the Guardian, an owls’ oasis no longer exists in the Canadian state of British Columbia.   With only my basic understanding of anything Canadian (I haven’t been to Canada) wouldn’t you think that it should be an oasis for birds and animals?  

Canada conjures up images of wilderness, fertile countryside, rainforest havens, huge redwoods, and lush coniferous trees.  But all is not well in the Canadian countryside, particularly as British Columbia is experiencing a catastrophic population decline of its owls. 

Apparently, there is only one remaining female Spotted owl in the region.  And this was after an effort by a breeding programme to reinvigorate the population with the release of three male spotted owls, two of which died, possibly due to collisions with rail or road traffic, and the other injured and returned to captivity.

The female’s precise location is now a closely guarded secret.  And reported by the journalist, Leyland Cecco from Spo’zem First Nation, Canada, her lonely presence is a symbol of the country’s inability to save its Spotted owl species. Isn’t that an incredible thought, the wilds of Canada not having any owls. 

For thousands of years the Spotted owl lived in southern British Columbia, with a range extending to Mexico.  The Northern Spotted owl, a subspecies, moved around BC, Washington, Oregon states and into northern California.  In 1990s Canada had a healthy population of Northern Spotted owls, of possibly 40 breeding pairs living in the state’s cathedral-like forests.  The spotted owl is a long-lived bird, but with low reproductive potential, living off flying squirrels and bushy tail woodrats.  And today it must compete for space with the Barred Owl – originally from the east of north America. A bigger and stronger owl.

Owls were first threatened by early European settlers, but generations of industrial development and logging have fractured the landscape and gutted the owl’s habitat.  A breeding pair of owls may only have one or two eggs and not every year and only one or two fledges.  Young owls in BC leave the nest from 9th to 26 June but remain close by before dispersing to seek out their own food sources and establish their own territories. Juvenile mortality is very high also due to the degradation of its habitat from wildfires, of which Canada is facing an unprecedented calamity this year.  But logging causes patchworks of forest that are broken up by cleared areas and the young owls must fly further and further distances, far greater than their small bodies can tolerate, without the protection of a forest’s canopy. In this environment young owls starve.

Owls need thousands of acres of forest to hunt and survive.  A range can be 2000 to 3000 hectares. And it is the ‘old growth forests’ – which for generations offered a haven for owls.  These are also protected areas for owls.  Unfortunately, these are now being exploited by loggers as the Canadian Government allows the cutting down of trees in protected areas. 

Despite many plans to try to protect the owl over the years, the government won’t pass an emergency order preferring instead to let BC negotiate its own deals with the timber industry.  

This industry is dominant in BC contributing nearly C$2bn to provincial government revenues and making up one third of the regional economy.  Logging is irrevocably changing the makeup of the forests, swapping thick stands of diverse trees with young fast-growing replacements that resemble monoculture farms. What chance has a lone female owl? 

That sentence maybe a bit over dramatic but biologists now recognise the owl situation as a an ‘indicator’ species – a barometer for the broader health of an ecosystem.  Further logging has recently occurred that allows the federally owned TransMountain pipeline expansion.  Owl advocacy groups feel that Canada’s federal government has abandoned its efforts to help the owl, leaving the fight to grassroot environmental organisations. 

But even they are resigned to the fact that the spotted owl’s eradication is imminent joining 130 other species that have disappeared from the Canadian wild.  Too whit too whoo

We had better take as many videos of our wildlife as we can, because one day, this is all we will have of them.