Spotted owls lose turf war at Muir Woods

March 22, 2012

If you’re fortunate to be hiking Muir Woods at sunset, be sure to keep your ears open and eyes peeled. You may just encounter one of the parks more stealthy inhabitants.

On any of the park’s many trails, you may hear the low-pitched “ho-ho-hooo,” of a horned owl, or the distinctive “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all” hooting of the barred owl. But one owl species remains conspicuously quiet — the northern spotted owl.

“You’ll never hear its call here,” said Steffan Bartschat, a ranger for the National Park Service. “A spotted owl call usually results in a barred owl attack.”

As it’s migrated West over the last four decades, the aggressive barred owl has emerged as a serious threat to the spotted owl’s habitat. Loggers were once the bogeymen of the spotted owl, but these days its close cousin has emerged as a major nemesis. Rather than

Barred owl2

The barred owl are East Coast transplants the were first spotted in Muir Woods in 2002. Photo by Wiki Commons.

engage in aerial fights over territory, the more demure spotted owl flees to the hillsides, ceding its Muir Woods perches to its barred owl cousins.

“They’re kinda finicky, they don’t necessarily feel threatened by the barred owl – just annoyed,” said Bartschat on a recent night tour about owl species in Muir Woods.

The barred owls — East Coast transplants — were first spotted in Muir Woods in 2002 and began nesting there three years ago. At that time there were as many as 40 spotted owls in the area. This year there are no known spotted owls in the main area of the park, and of course no nests or offspring either. The spotted owls have picked up and moved to West Marin and the Marin Headlands.

The plight has brought out an outpouring of national and local support for the imperiled spotteds, a bird whose numbers have declined by 40 percent in the last 25 years. Spotted owls were declared a threatened species in 1990 under the Endangered Species Act.


Barred owls have taken over spotted owl territory in Muir Woods. Photo by Stephen Kennedy.

Marin County has allocated $13,100 to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory Program to monitor the health and stability of owls in the West Marin region. And recently the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it would designate critical habitat for spotted owls in California, Oregon and Washington, while allowing some logging to prevent forest fires.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also come up with a plan to remove or kill barred owls from certain habitat areas. The barred owls would be captured and released elsewhere or taken into captivity. The plan has been decried by environmentalists who believe the barred owl is being scape-goated for what is still primarily a loss of habitat due to logging.

Is the removal of the barred owl enough to bring the spotted owl back?

“There’s no guarantee it will work, at least in Muir Woods,” said Bartschat.

About the Author

Eric Galan is a Bay Nature editorial intern.

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