The Bend High Desert Museum announced that its spotted owl, Polka, died of old age. He spent the last years of his long life roosting high in an old growth snag made of concrete, behind a thick wall of bullet proof glass. He was 26.
Polka was one of only a few dozen spotted owls kept in captivity and one of just two pairs to successfully hatch chicks. Jim Dawson, the curator of living collections at the high desert museum, thinks its time to start a serious captive breeding effort to aid in spotted owl recovery. Captive breeding isn’t part of the species’ current recovery plan, and it remains controversial.
Polka was a rehab bird, injured by biologists during a banding study. He bonded with a captive female owl with a broken wing named Dot, and the pair eventually produced eight chicks. Dot died last last year.
Biologists aren’t sure why Polka and Dot reproduced so enthusiastically in captivity, or why other captive spotted owl pairs have been unsuccessful. Dawson says raptors are notoriously hard to breed.
“The pair, when they go into breeding mode, gets very territorial and they’re very nervous about their nest site. You want them to focus on each other,” he says.
Eric Forsman, a leading spotted owl biologist who captured Polka and Dot, says the trick may simply be finding pairs of owls that are compatible with each other, trying with a larger sample of owls. But like many scientists, he’s skeptical captive breeding can help save the species.
“We haven’t attempted it with very many individuals…I think given enough time and practice, we could probably breed spotted owls in captivity, but I’m not sure that’s the solution to our problem,” the U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist says.
The problem, Forsman says, is that even if you could increase owl numbers in captivity, the limited old-growth habitat available in the wild is increasingly being taken over by larger barred owls. And barred owls may wind up being much harder to remove from the landscape than threats like lead or DDT, which pushed the California Condor and Peregrine falcon to the brink.
After 15 years of debate, habitat protection, and restrictions on logging in federal forests, the spotted owl population is still declining by about 3 percent a year. In Washington state, that decline is a crash— it’s more like 7 percent a year. At that rate, Foresman says, it doesn’t take long to run out of owls.
“In our study on the Olympic Peninsula, we’re down to just a handful of pairs we can still find.”
In British Columbia, the northern tip of the owl’s range, the bird is functionally extinct in the wild. To date, the provincial leadership in British Columbia is the only institution that’s attempting captive breeding as as strategy for owl recovery. Ian Blackburn is coordinating that recovery effort.
“It was purely a numbers game,” Blackburn says. “There were so few owls left, and they were so widely distributed that the likelihood they would overcome hurdles— habitat, barred owls— was very low.”
But the captive owls aren’t breeding, and environmentalists and even a number of scientists question the program’s integrity. The government removed three of the last surviving adult owl pairs from the wild to start the program, along with several juvenile birds. One spotted owl was injured and killed in the process.
The government’s Mountain View Conservation Center has produced just two chicks. Blackburn says the program is still on track to re-introduce 60 owls back into the wild within five years. But he also acknowledges the program doesn’t have enough male owls, and some appear to have trouble fertilizing eggs.
Even more seriously, environmentalists and scientists say that even as the government attempts to breed spotted owls in captivity, it has continued to allow logging in old growth forests. Blackburn confirmed that the forest that used to provide a nesting site to one of the owls currently in captivity was logged in 2007.
Forsman initially advised the effort, but he distanced himself a few years ago. He says it was unclear to what extent owls from the program would be protected if they did eventually return to the wild.
“I became concerned that it wasn’t going to do you much good to do captive breeding if you weren’t willing to protect the places where those owls settled. So I moved on.”
Jim Dawson, the raptor expert at the High Desert Museum, didn’t want to discuss the specifics of the program in British Columbia. But he would like to see more of a concerted effort to figure out how to get spotted owls to reproduce in captivity. “It’s not going to save a species,” he says. “But it’s an important tool.”
Dawson thinks having access to a captive population of owls could help biologists explore the relationship between the spotted owl and the barred owl.
“It allows us to do experimental work,” Dawson says. “To understand the relationship between barred and spotted owls, scientists are going to have to take an experimental approach and captive breeding could help us with that.”
Ian Blackburn, who coordinates the recovery effort and captive breeding program in British Columbia, says part of the problem in Canada was that the government dragged out the decision to start it’s program.
“We had many years go by where we had this 7 percent decline. We had greater options then. My only advice would be, if you think down the road you’re going to be implementing a captive breeding program, do it now.”
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.
Join our Public Insight Network!