To see some footage of the northern spotted owl and an interview with Jasmin from the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program, have a look at the video above!
Ok so I’ll start this blog by admitting that I am an owl addict, I cannot get enough; from watching barn owls in the fields of the Cowichan Valley (and in the UK at Cossington Meadows), spotting barred owls in the centre of town, ringing/banding tiny migrating saw whet owls, audio surveying for western screech owls, or seeing an all time favourite the snowy owl on logs in Boundary Bay, I seriously cannot get enough! But there is one owl I never thought I would come face to face with, the illusive and critically endangered northern spotted owl. So when I was given the opportunity through work to visit the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program in Vancouver, I jumped on the earliest ferry and headed for the mainland.
The northern spotted owl is an ancient temperate rainforest species, found on the west coast of North America, they are a highly specialised species, only found in forests that are around 150-200 years old or older. The northern spotted owl population has been decimated in recent years in BC, as much of our ancient rainforest has been lost to deforestation. Now only small pockets of ancient forest survives, and much of it is isolated and fragmented. This loss of forest has caused the wild northern spotted owl population to decline to just ten, this makes it the rarest owl in Canada and one of the most endangered species in the country.
Another issue impacting the northern spotted owl is the invasion of the barred owl, traditionally an eastern species, barred owls have made their way across the country and are now BC’s most commonly seen species. The barred owl is slightly bigger than the spotted owl and they are a generalist species, that is able to out compete the spotted owls, this has caused spotted owls to be pushed out of suitable habitat and whilst it may not be the main driver in their population decline, it certainly is not helping.
The day started with one of the strangest wildlife encounters I have ever had, on arrival to the breeding program we opened the boot of my colleague’s car and discovered a bat sitting on the lid of the boot. After getting over the initial surprise we scooped the bat into a paper bag and took it to a wildlife rehabilitation centre, we suspect it was looking for a roost somewhere and crawled into the car looking for somewhere warm. I had seen this firsthand with mice, but never with bats! The bat was fine and they will find it a much better place to roost!
Anyway back at the breeding program we met with the lovely employees who work with the northern spotted owls at their facility. They gave us a fantastic tour, showing us the work they are doing to breed and eventually release northern spotted owls back into the ancient forests of BC. The program currently has 20 owls, the initial work has been to learn how to effectively breed the owls. Northern spotted owls are not simple breeders, they are a long living species that does not start reproduction for many years, their eggs take 88 hours to hatch (most birds take half that) and are very susceptible to infection. The next stage of the program is to start reintroductions, with the overall goal to reach a population of 200 wild northern spotted owls in BC.
The highlight of the tour was of course seeing the owls themselves. We walked through the absolute pouring rain to the aviary to see a 23 year old male. The large aviaries are full of branches with many places for a spotted owl to hide, but this owl was pretty simple, he was sat at the back under some shelter, which was a very sensible decision! It was incredible to come face to face with a spotted owl, what was so striking was their markings, not only were the spots very clear, but their darker browns and patterned feathers fit so perfectly with the darker and often gloomy BC forest. It was fascinating to compare them with the owls we mostly see in the forest, the barred owl, their lighter colouring often sticks out in the forest, and this is because they are an eastern species and are more adapted to lighter deciduous forests found there. It was a unique opportunity to directly compare a native and non-native species, and see how the native species truly fits within the ecosystem.
The Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program is doing incredible work to try and save such a stunning species that belongs in the ancient forests of British Columbia. It was such a privilege to get to see such an endangered bird, and to learn about the conservation techniques that are being implemented to ensure that they do not become extinct. I wanted to say a huge thanks to the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program for the work they do and for letting us tour their facility. Without groups of people like them, northern spotted owls would already be extinct in Canada, but hopefully with their hard work we will one day see a sustainable population back in our ancient forests.
To learn more about the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program, follow them on Facebook: