They were screaming from the woods. Over and over the piercing, wheezy complaints were just audible from the garden. I noticed them first and told everyone else to listen. Of course listening isn’t always hearing.
Soon everyone was tuned in, but I scrambled over the rusty deer fence into the forest alone. Walking around in my work clothes helped me blend in, but my clunky farm boots snapped just about every twig on the ground. I kept stopping while the fledglings momentarily kept quiet, to look and listen for trouble in the form of a bumbling hominid. In turn I was trying to figure out exactly where they were and wanted them to keep up the noise. Caution was quickly flown to the wind and I’d search the back-lit branches. Finally I met the dark searching eyes of a fluffy fledgling owl.
Barred Owls aren’t native to Shaw Island, and they didn’t start breeding in Washington State until the 1960s. Humans of European decent blazed a trail across the US for them, logging and creating their favored edge habitat. They’re not always welcome species, as they are aggressive. They either out-compete their relatives (Spotted Owls mainly) or in some cases, eat them (the severe decline of other smaller Western forest dwelling owls is no coincidence when paired with Barred Owl incline). I still appreciated them, because all owls are incredible and Barred Owl profusion in urban environments largely only filling a void long since abandoned by more particular owl species. (An aside is that I don’t agree with shooting Barred Owls to protect Spotted Owls. I don’t think it’s going to work. The issue is habitat destruction, not an invasive species removal.)
I’d had a rather perturbing conversation with an acquaintance the other day and it got me thinking about these animals while I watched them. To paraphrase the conversation, it went something like this:
Me: “Barred Owls impact other owl species that are native and already in decline.”
Him: “At what cost are we focusing on getting rid of species we perceive as ‘non-native.’ I think we should just have more education.”
Me: “So you’re saying we shouldn’t try to fix things we’ve messed up? Like rats on islands that devastate native animals and decrease biodiversity.”
Him: “But what impact is there on other native species when you go in to take out an introduced species? I think we should just have more education and appreciation.”
Me: “I don’t think that applies to animals we’ve introduced, appreciate goats on random islands? There’s pretty clear examples where removal of invasive species helps. Getting rid of rats on islands where they eat the eggs of ground nesting birds, especially in places with no native land mammals is a pretty obvious win.”
Him: “Well I think there just needs to be more education and we need to appreciate species. And not waste money on restoration.”
At that point I walked away. What was meant by education was never presented. Pseudo understanding of science and the natural world is something that’s common in the world of guides. Don’t get me wrong, some are amazing naturalists but…Ok I’ll leave it at that.
This was however a classic discussion of what is “native” and what’s not, especially when we are the means of a species’ introduction or further expansion. I agree we need to be as plastic in how we view them. However, if we can make the choice between having a greater or lesser bio-diverse world I think we all know the right choice. The thought that we should simply just throw our hands up and let invasive species surge forward in the name of enlightenment or something in the realm of species equality (hippie bullshit about all species being equal without a clear look at the actual biology) is just plain stupid. If we have limited resources, possibly education is paramount to restoration or eradication efforts, but it’s a gray issue at best. Barred Owls are a very gray issue because while they don’t belong here, again they are the only owls expanding in the urban niche in the West. Choosing between having owls and no owls is an easy choice.
So, was I looking at future hellions in the downward spiral of homogeneous ecosystems or merely some adorable baby owls? There used to be Western-screech Owls on Shaw and there are a few Northern Pygmy-owls too. Spotted owls? I doubt it, but I don’t actually know. I err on the side of adorable babies, despite my annoyance at my aforementioned conversation. They’re just babies trying to make their way in the world.
The next day I woke up and as soon as I walked out the door I could hear them. They were closer and as I did chores in the garden I knew they’d moved beyond the shadows. Within minutes of searching at midday I found them again, right on the edge of the forest, sitting contentedly in a Big Leaf Maple.
The plan was to simply sit with them and enjoy their downy personages, but I was seduced by the photographic opportunities. Retrieving my camera (and adding to a small hoard of notebooks, tripods, and binoculars I’d amassed), I crept back to my vantage. I wasn’t hidden but I felt I was far enough away to not deter parents from bringing food. As I started to settle in, I realized there was an inordinate amount of whitewash around me, (a nice way of saying poop). Then I looked up, into the face of an adult Barred Owl, mere feet from where I sat.
The next several hours with the owls were wonderful. These birds are so personable, for whatever reason, that you feel as if you are in their company. The adult moved around a few times and gave me half-concerned looks when I stood below. I crept beneath the youngsters and watched them bob their heads in curious evaluation, stretch, and most importantly, screech for food. In fact, even when they lounged across their respective branches for midday naps, they’d stir from their slumber to scream for food. Watching their heads progressively droop in the heat of the day, pinky eyelids drooping, only to jerk up to remind the world of their borderline starvation was riotously adorable. I have no other way to describe it.
I took breaks, and of course I missed the best photo opportunity while going into the garden to harvest greens for dinner. Five rolled around and I heard more excited screeching and looked up to mom or dad (owls are not generally sexually dimorphic in plumage) flying toward the babies with a snake! One sibling grabbed it first and managed to hop off with it while the other pleaded for a taste nearby. The first managed to wolf it down without having to share.
By the time it was getting to be dusk they’d moved a few times closer in the direction of my home. The fledglings were just that, fledged, but that didn’t mean they were steady. They tumbled down when choosing rotten branches, barely catching themselves on outspread wings. One almost fell when it tried to balance while stretching and then again when rubbing its beaks on a branch.
I had one last glimpse of a parent in a quick, quiet flight over the meadow, landing near where I sat watching. In that moment I didn’t envy this bird, even though it could fly, had amazing hearing, and can turn its head almost 360 degrees in a circle. All I could hear was the screeching of hungry babies and think about how it’s life is hard enough without humans deciding if it’s valuable or not. Although I was kept awake longer than I wanted listening to the owlets continue their begging, I didn’t hold a grudge against them as a species, they were just trying to eat some mice (and maybe a snake or two).