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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Spotting Owls

Air Date: Week of

Scientists have long assumed that the Northern spotted owl, the symbol of the northwest forest wars, could only survive in old growth forests. But, a population of spotted owls outside San Francisco may be proving that assumption wrong. Nathan Johnson has our story.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A decade ago, the northern spotted owl sparked a heated debate over the scope of the Endangered Species Act. The furor polarized environmentalists and loggers. It began when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list the owl as a threatened species. Even though habitat protections are now in place, the future of the spotted owl is uncertain. Recent studies show the owl is still on the decline throughout California, Oregon, and Washington State. But there is one population of spotted owls that's thriving in an unlikely place --just outside the city of San Francisco. Nathan Johnson has our story.

(Spotted owl calls)

JOHNSON: The territorial call of a spotted owl is unmistakable. It's four notes: one short hoot --


JOHNSON: Followed by two evenly-spaced hoots --

(Hoot hoot)

JOHNSON: Then a final hoot trailing off.


JOHNSON: It's a sound biologist Katie Fehring and her two colleagues are hoping to hear as they canvass the coastal forest just north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

FEHRING: The first time we came this year, we've located them right about here sitting right next to each other, about a foot apart on the same limb. We think they're hanging out right in this area. There's a lot of whitewash around, so we'll do a little half-hour search.

JOHNSON: Over the last four years, a team of ten owl trackers have turned up more than 60 owl sites, making this one of the densest populations on record.

FEHRING: Compared to owls in the Northwest, in Marin County they're extremely densely packed in. Some places you'll have a pair of owls in every drainage as you go down a ridge.

JOHNSON: Many of the scientists involved in the study were surprised, not just by how many owls were found, but by where they were found. Spotted owls traditionally were thought to nest almost exclusively in large old growth trees.

FEHRING: Over the past few years we've had a few nests in bay trees as small as eight inches around, very small trees. And that was unheard of. You know, you think of spotted owls, you think of a huge old growth tree, and these were tiny, little spindly bay trees. But, with enough cover over them and enough moisture in the area, it's nice and cool.

JOHNSON: The fact that owls are turning up in non-old growth habitat has not been lost on the timber industry, which never really accepted the argument that spotted owls were threatened with extinction. Ross Mickey is a spokesman for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group based in Portland, Oregon.

MICKEY: Everything was based on anecdotal evidence of, basically, he spotted owl needs old growth, old growth is being cut, therefore .the spotted owl is threatened. That was the link.

JOHNSON: He estimates that timber harvests in national forests in the Pacific Northwest fell 75 percent once logging was restricted in owl habitat. And he says the spotted owl does not require old growth trees to survive.

MICKEY: Basically, it needs a place to live and it needs food. And it finds those in a variety of vegetation types. I could go over and over and give you example after example of areas where people wouldn't even, didn't even want to look for spotted owls in the initial days because it didn't fit the profile. You know, no, the spotted owl lives in a wide variety of vegetation types, much broader than what we thought when it was listed.

EVANS: The argument that we find spotted owls in habitat other than old growth forest and, therefore, they're a very resilient species is a convenient one for the industry to put forth.

JOHNSON: Jules Evans, a biologist who's researched spotted owls in Marin County, says the fact that owls are sometimes found in disturbed habitat doesn't mean they can reproduce and sustain a population.

EVANS: In the short term, sure. These birds are displaced. They can move into disturbed habitat. You might find them there. That's like finding refugees in (laughs) -- in some camp in Bangladesh or Chechnya or someplace and saying, "Oh, they're fine, they're leading productive lives."

JOHNSON: In the Pacific Northwest, old growth forests still provide the most ideal habitat for the spotted owl, largely because that's where flying squirrels live, the owl's main food source in the region. But here in the extreme southern tip of the range, many of the conditions the owl relies on are satisfied in second-growth forests. The temperature is cool due to coastal fog. Food is plentiful because of a large population of wood rats. And there are many closed-canopy forests that make for good nest sites. But the wild card in terms of the owl's survival is that this habitat, unlike that in the Pacific Northwest, is flanked by densely-populated cities and suburbs.

(Engine, horn)

BUS DRIVER: The entrance gate is directly to the front of us. Stop at the entrance gate and turn in your green ticket.

JOHNSON: This tour bus, coming from downtown San Francisco, is carrying just a handful of the two million or so annual visitors to these forests.

BUS DRIVER: Just a little bit inside the forest up to the right side, you'll find the snack bar and gift shop.

JOHNSON: Muir Woods, a 500-acre national monument, retains the only ancient trees left in this watershed. Mia Monroe is the head ranger.

MONROE: Muir Woods is a very, very busy park. We are just 20 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, so people can come here after work or after school. So, on a day like today, which is the middle of the week, when mostly kids are in school, we're probably going to get 3,000 people here.

(Footfalls, followed by hooting spotted owl)

JOHNSON: Back on the other side of the mountain, Katie Fehring is at the top of a steep canyon looking for signs of the spotted owl around a nearby nest.

FEHRING: So, we just hiked up a pretty steep little stretch, a little ridgelet. We're up on probably an old logging road, I would guess. You can see the stumps from the redwood logging, and it is above a busy road. You'll probably hear the cars go by.

JOHNSON: Biologists here worry about the impact of things like new home construction and illegal mountain bike trails. But one of their biggest worries? Wildlife photographers.

FEHRING: We have had a problem in the past, and currently, of professional photographers coming out and calling birds and feeding them and trying to manipulate them closer and lower. It does change the owls' behavior. It keeps them awake. It makes them very accustomed to humans. It makes them approach humans. They'll fly in and look at my backpack to see if I have food in my backpack.

JOHNSON: Besides photographers, there are also aggressive bird watchers, sometimes known to unintentionally harass this threatened species in their zeal to get a rare glimpse of the owl.

FEHRING: They're well-meaning people, and I understand there is sort of an allure to the owl. But we like to try to leave them alone. You know, it wouldn't be a proud thing to be known as disturbing the wildlife that you care about.

(Owl hoots)

JOHNSON: Biologists think that over the next hundred years or so, as long as this land stays undeveloped, these owls will survive. Unfortunately, they're not as confident about the owls' survival in other locations. But here, this season's eggs are just starting to hatch. And if all goes well, there will be at least 20 to 30 new fledglings in the hills north of San Francisco this summer.

(Owl hoots)

JOHNSON: For Living on Earth, this is Nathan Johnson in Marin County.

(Owl hoots, fade to music up and under: Kevin Ayer, "The Owl" -- "Oh what a beautiful owl you are, the way you think it makes me think of things to say and things to do, but most of all of loving you...")



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