To barred owls, a tree's a tree
Article Date: 2008-01-04 Source: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com
By Michael Milstein
Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.A. - Pacing a suburban sidewalk, Cori Cauble rotates an antenna in her hand, listening for telltale beeps. A well-dressed man crossing the street glances at her, lifts a cellphone from his ear and asks, ''The owls?''
''We're looking for them,'' says Cauble, a wildlife researcher from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC).
The neighborhoods of Charlotte, lined with graceful houses and arching trees,
are home to a booming population of hundreds of barred owls — adaptable birds as
happy in one of the largest cities in the South as in an old-growth forest.
Barred owls have provoked controversy: Federal agencies recently proposed
shooting them in the Pacific Northwest, where barred owls have invaded
old-growth forests that were once the exclusive haunt of the closely related,
but endangered, spotted owl. In the past decade, the number of spotted owls in
Washington has declined nearly 7 percent a year — in part because the bigger,
more aggressive barred owl expanded its range in the state and began driving out
its threatened cousin.
But barred owls are also interesting and engaging, said Bob Sallinger,
conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland.
"They're a wonderful bird — all the controversy and politics and biology aside,"
Sallinger said. "That's what makes all this so interesting."
Spotted owls are particular about where they live and what they eat; barred owls
aren't. They find all the forest they need in suburban backyards and eat almost
anything that moves — snakes, bats, opossums. Charlotte researchers call one
owl-nest box the sushi box because the owls living in it feast on so many fish.
"The city, as far as they're concerned, is the forest," said Rob Bierregaard, a
UNCC ecologist and ornithologist leading a six-year-old study of local barred
owls that is one of the most extensive owl studies undertaken. "We found one
sleeping over a sidewalk with people walking 6 feet under it all day long."
At least from a human point of view, the owls are generally puppy-dog friendly,
he said, except when a biologist like Bierregaard is climbing a tree to band
their young — a situation in which he wears a lacrosse helmet as defense against
the divebombing parents.
He's a kind of pied piper of owls, walking through neighborhoods with a boombox
playing owl calls — and known locally as "the owl man."
The Charlotte owls themselves are popular local celebrities.
Bierregaard, Cauble and other UNCC researchers mounted nest boxes in parks and
backyards. Tiny infrared cameras in the boxes let the scientists watch what the
owls are doing and eating, and provide a public window into the lives of the
The researchers record video from the cameras, and while they're at it they pipe
the video to televisions in living rooms of nearby homes.
"When he first hooked up the video, I stayed up all night because I didn't want
to miss anything," said Frances Evans, who has grown especially fond of the owls
nesting in a box attached to a willow oak towering over her back lawn. The
camera gives her a clear view of the owl chicks as they wait for their mother to
return with a meal.
It's a point of pride that an owl was once fitted with a radio transmitter in
her kitchen. She and her husband, Don, have a friendly competition with
neighbors over who has the most owl-friendly yard.
Nesting season has gotten as popular as football season as everyone gathers
round their TV for owl-watching parties.
"Other people hear about it and say, 'Can we come too?' I say, 'Sure,' " she
said, showing off photos of herself holding the owl fledglings when researchers
visited to fit them with tags. "It's so exciting — you'd think they were my own
children. Then they flew away, and I felt like an empty-nester all over again."
Barred owls are native to East Coast states but appear to be multiplying,
especially in urban areas where trees are growing large enough to simulate the
big trees they prefer in the wild. No one is sure why they spread westward. Some
suggest it is a natural expansion, though one theory suggests they hopscotched
through trees that grew up in the Midwest as settlers began extinguishing
wildfires that once burned such trees away.
The generalist nature of barred owls, compared with the specialization of
spotted owls, gives them a more secure foothold regardless of habitat.
Barred owls seem to be populating Charlotte much more densely than they do wild
forests — sometimes nesting no more than 300 yards apart, Bierregaard's team has
found. The city appears to be saturated with owls; when owls die, they are very
quickly replaced and Bierregaard has found young owls trying to nest even in
small trees he'd expect them to pass up.
"I can't go anywhere where I can't find them," he said.
He suspects they will populate the expanding suburbs of Charlotte in even
greater numbers as trees there mature, developing the cavities and large
branches the owls like.
The city owls feed heavily on small birds, perhaps drawn to backyard feeders,
but the owls themselves have no real predators, the researchers say. The most
frequent cause of death for owls fitted with radio transmitters is getting hit
by cars when they're flying after prey.
The infrared cameras have given researchers a more complete picture of the
birds' lives — revealing types of prey they might not recognize through
traditional methods such as checking pellets of undigested food, Cauble said.
"We're seeing a lot of snakes in the cameras," she said. "That's something you
wouldn't necessarily see in the pellets."
It has also countered common expectations for the owls.
"If you read the textbooks, they say the owls stay away from people and
development," Cauble said. "Obviously, they don't stay away from here."
Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com and placed here for comment.
OwlPages.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.
2008-11-25 - Environmental groups go to court over the spotted owl by Michael Milstein - Washington, DC, U.S.A.
2008-05-17 - Plan for saving spotted owl recommends maintaining older forests west of the
Cascades by Michael Milstein - Oregon, U.S.A.
2008-01-25 - The owls among us by Bruce Henderson - Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.A.
2007-10-16 - Ecologists discover city is 'uber-forest' for big owls by James Hathaway - Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.A.
2007-07-29 - So much for saving the spotted owl by Michael Milstein - Oregon, U.S.A.
2004-05-31 - A no-holds-barred owl war by Michael Milstein - Oregon, U.S.A.
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On 2009-01-29, cassie nims from lakeville michigan wrote: "wow the barred owl is so cool and well i have one living right bye my house its so cool"
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