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Know the West

When doing the right thing gets complicated


It was dark, and about 30 of us were grouped around a campfire in a forest in the Pacific Northwest, when Tim, the owl expert, said, "I think it would be really weird to be a 'sparred' owl."

A sparred owl is what you get when a spotted owl mates with a barred owl. I had never before considered the loneliness of being a half-breed owl.

Until that night, in fact, I hadn't known much about the habits of spotted owls.  Of course, the species has been famous for decades, a flashpoint in the war over old-growth forests like the one we were huddled in.  I am trained as a plant conservation biologist, so I certainly knew the basics of the spotted owl story.  But I'd never seen a spotted owl, and I had thought very little about its invading relative, the barred owl.  I had never heard the call of either a spotted owl or a barred owl. I'd certainly never heard the mangled mixture of sound that might come from the hybrid of the two.

Spotted owls, the endangered, old-growth-dependent birds of the Pacific Northwest, are closely related to the barred owl. The barred owl is slightly larger and more aggressive, and it is moving in to this area from the East. Although the causes of this invasion are uncertain, its effects on the spotted owls are not good.

Barred owls out-compete spotted owls and sometimes drive them out of their nests.  Spotted owl nest sites are extremely rare; once a pair of spotted owls gets evicted, they are unlikely to produce baby owls for a long time.  But spotted and barred owls can and occasionally do mate with one another, producing what's been dubbed sparred owls.

That chilly night in the forest, Tim talked about those owls. He empathized with these new creatures that were no longer either spotted -- gentle and old-growth dependent -- or barred -- aggressive and opportunistic.  The birds of mixed parents have intermediate markings, mixed-up calls and perhaps mixed-up instincts. They belong to no group, have uncertain fertility and most likely have no real future. The sparred owls are doomed to a kind of avian no-owl's land, a mixed-species purgatory. Or so Tim believes.

As a plant biologist, I'm familiar with hybrids; plants hybridize all the time.  What fascinated me wasn't that the hybrids exist, it was Tim's response to them. People have struggled for decades to protect ancient forests and save the spotted owls that need them to survive. Yet now it seems the species may be done in by the invasion of a close relative. Tim told us that some owl researchers, who are as devoted as he is to saving the spotted owl from extinction, now propose killing the invaders and also their hybrid progeny.

Tim's love for and knowledge of spotted owls was obvious.  It was also clear he understood that the threat posed by the arrival of barred owls might be the final blow.  Still, he sympathized with the invaders, and especially with their half-breed offspring.  I thought of the bizarre divide between our work as conservation scientists and our empathy for other living beings.  During my scientific training, I was taught the orthodox view that being a good scientist requires distancing yourself from the organism you are studying. Compassion, one of our most basic gifts, is a cause for suspicion. Empathy is believed to get in the way of "impartial science."

Remembering that evening campfire, I think of how Tim's compassion for the lost birds with their mangled cry snapped me out of myself. The idea that we are all connected -- a notion so hard to hold and yet so easy to see at that moment -- that was what Tim was saying.  You can't shoot one bird in order to save another; you can't love one and hate her hybrid baby. It just doesn't work that way.

The night Tim spoke in the old-growth patch was more than a year ago.  Last week, I opened our local paper and saw this headline: "Experiment to test killing one owl to help another."  Federal biologists are proposing an experiment in which they will kill barred owls in parts of the spotted owl's range to test the impact of barred owl "control" on spotted owls.  It's a controversial proposal, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on it until Jan. 11.

I already know what Tim would say. After his talk that night, we exchanged several e-mails, and among other things, he said: "As a culture, we've spent millennia playing god.  Perhaps it is time to show some humility, lock up the shotguns and just watch what unfolds as the spotted owls and barred owls do their dance." Yes, perhaps it is.

Carla A. Wise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes about the environment from her home in Corvallis, Oregon.