Posted by: pointreyesscience | June 21, 2010

Silence of the owls

What I learned today: Like Hannibal Lecter, owls love liver.

The Northern spotted owl is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Photo credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I watched the adult Northern spotted owl through my binoculars, and all I could think was, “How majestic!” The owl was about the size of a footstool with wide wings. It was craning its neck toward us with a look of bored disdain.

The fledgling perched next to the adult on the Douglas fir was in its awkward pre-teens. It was a ball of white fluff—the sort of thing you’d expect to find at the back of your clothes dryer. It demanded another helping of food with a raspy screech. The adult complied, yanking a smooth orb from the belly of the wood rat clamped in its talons. The fledgling nipped the orb out of the adult’s beak and swallowed it whole. Majestic, indeed.

Marin County, Calif. is the southernmost point in the Northern spotted owl’s range. Here, the owl roosts in firs and redwoods. While it prefers to feast on Point Reyes National Seashore’s abundant woodrats, the owl will also sneak ordinary rats and other critters from nearby farm buildings.

For over 100 years, logging has chipped away at Northern spotted owl habitats. With owl numbers in a dive, the federal government listed the bird as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. But logging isn’t the owl’s only concern. Over decades, a second owl native to the East Coast called the barred owl creeped across Canada then turned south to Washington and Oregon. The barred owl is a tougher specimen than the spotted owl and better suited for an owl civil war.

With the Northern spotted owl perched precariously in the Pacific Northwest, the National Park Service has been keeping a close eye on its populations. The service’s Inventory and Monitoring program tracks spotted owl pairs as they mate, nest and raise young. Not every nest is as lucky as the one we’re watching today. Predators often devour eggs or chicks when the adults are out on the hunt for food.

The woodrat is all gone, and this fledgling is quiet—for now. Its fat belly is hanging over its talons. Perhaps, next time it’ll take its liver with some fava beans and a nice glass of Chianti.

-Daniel Strain


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