TACOMA — The barred owl is pushing its way into the Pacific Northwest, and into the territory of its rare cousin, the northern spotted owl.
This owl movement has biologists wondering whether both species can survive in a shared habitat.
"The barred owls move into these areas and quite often the response of the spotted owls is they leave," said Eric Forsman, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Corvallis, Ore.
The barred owl is relatively new to this region and has begun to dwell in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest along with the northern spotted owl, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported.
Old-growth forest habitat is crucial to spotted owl survival, so the fate of the bird could be linked to its relative.
Some experts say the barred owl might displace the spotted owl in spite of efforts to protect the threatened bird from extinction.
Forsman directed scientific studies years ago that resulted in the Endangered Species Act listing for the northern spotted owl in 1990.
Scientists who have monitored the owls since then are pushing for further research on the spotted owls’ relationship with barred owls.
For the spotted owl population to stabilize could take as long as 100 years, experts have said. Now, with the barred owl in the picture, it’s harder for scientists to predict the spotted owl’s future.
"It’s not as simple as we once thought it was," Forsman said.
The barred owl is slightly bigger than its cousin. It also has some different features, such as horizontal bars below its head and vertical streaks on its chest. Its distinctive call sounds like, "who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all."
The barred owl, which originated in the Eastern United States, didn’t live in Washington 40 years ago. Scientists don’t know how the bird found its way across the country.
Barred owls are resilient, Forsman said.
"They find food and nest sites in places where the spotted owl just can’t hack it," he said.
The spotted owl prefers a special diet of flying squirrels and likes to hunt at night, while the barred owl will eat almost anything that moves — fish, frogs, birds, snakes and rodents.
Environmentalists have used the northern spotted owl in a campaign to save old-growth forests in the region, and the conflict with the barred owl could give them more ammunition to prevent logging in those forests.
"It does seem the barred owl is displacing the spotted owl," said Susan Jane Brown, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, which opposes old-growth logging. "They need all the habitat they can get."
State wildlife officials agree spotted owls may need better protection.
"Habitat is still an issue, and I think the barred owl has become a complicating factor," said wildlife biologist Joe Buchanan of the state department of Fish and Wildlife.
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