Spotted Owls

Here's a personal encounter with the subspecies of spotted owl that lives in Arizona.

Spotted Owl, by Mimi WolfTwo big owls perched side by side on a level branch, so close together that their wings touched. Their eyes were half closed. They looked drowsy and comfortable, taking their ease in their pleasant day roost.

"Don't go past that boulder," warned Smitty, who had pointed the birds out to us. Robert T. Smith found the spotted owls of southeast Arizona's Huachuca Mountains in the mid '70s, and for the rest of his life he led birdwatchers to visit them. He made sure that the visitors mind their manners and didn't disturb the rare owls.

Two by two, the birders walked up the trail as far as the boulder and leaned over to get their eyes a few inches closer to their target. Each person took a good look before turning back down the path so the next two people could approach. In the steep, narrow canyon, the owls' brown feathers blended into bark and cliff. The white spots all over them could be read as flecks of sunlight penetrating the forest and playing in the shady understory. They were not far away, but you had to know what you were looking for to see them at all. Many hikers amble past these owls without ever knowing the birds are there.

One owl slowly opened a dark brown eye, returned our gaze for a moment, and then half closed its eye again. Clearly the birds were conscious of their human observers, but their equanimity was unruffled.

Trusting Spotted Owls

Spotted owls are tame, as owls go. A group of people could never get that close to a great horned owl, which will fly off when its keen ears detect the approach of humans. It's a lucky hiker who gets even a glimpse of a great horned owl as it disappears through the trees.

Spotted owls, on the other hand, may sit unflinching 20 feet up in a pine while people walk beneath the very tree where they're perched. Nevertheless, loud talking, arm waving, pointing, and hooting at them can frighten the owls, and they have been driven from their roosts many times by over-enthusiastic visitors.

This pair has been seen by more people than any other spotted owls in the wild. Smitty personally conducted over 6,000 visitors to observe them. In August of the year I visited them, during a conference of the American Birding Association in Sierra Vista. About 200 ardent birders spent several days in small groups, exploring the mountain ranges that rise like islands from the Arizona desert and attract Mexican species of birds that are found nowhere else in the United States. The area is a birder's paradise, and Smitty's owls were a high point for birding visitors.

The Two Races of Spotted Owls

The southern spotted owl lives in the mountains of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is rare and diminishing, primarily because its habitat is falling to the saw. It is the same species, but another race, as the northern spotted owl, the famous bird that has been the focus of controversy over logging in temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Few people have seen a spotted owl of either race. The owls live in inaccessible places. They're active mainly at night. And there are very few of them. Fewer every year.

In the Pacific Northwest, studies have shown that each pair needs 2,000 to 3,000 acres of old-growth forest. Old-growth forest, also called ancient forest, is native forest that has never been logged. It is the forest primeval, with all its diversity and complexity, as it evolved through the millennia. When an ancient conifer grove is cut, scientists tell us, at least 400 years must pass before the new grove begins to regain the characteristics of old growth forest.

The Spotted Owl as Indicator Species

Spotted owls live only in old growth. The Northern race of the spotted owl, found in California, Oregon, and Washington, is classified as an endangered species because of its rarity and declining numbers. Its real significance is that it is an indicator species. As predators in a complex web of life, spotted owls indicate that the forest is healthy: their disappearance indicates that the forest is in trouble.

Spotted owls eat the red-backed vole, a small mouse-like creature that lives in old-growth forest. The red-backed vole is a gourmet. It eats truffles, which it digs out of the soil. Truffles are the mushroom-like fruiting body of fungi that live in the tips of the roots of trees, especially conifers. The fungi and the tree roots cooperate in a way that enables both fungus and tree to live. The interdependence of these life forms is so complete that there is a special word to describe their relationship: mycorrhiza (pronounced mike-uh-rise-uh).

Though the mycorrhizal association between tree and truffle is not yet fully understood, we do know that baby conifer trees don't grow well unless their roots are inoculated with those certain fungi. Without the fungi's thread-like filaments wrapped around their finest roots, new trees are unable to colonize clearings or get established on steep rocky cliffs.

Since truffles, unlike other mushrooms, always grow underground, their spores can not be distributed by the wind. They reproduce by being dug up by truffle experts. The red-backed vole provides this service. It carries spores of the fungi in its intestine and deposits them wherever it leaves its droppings. By this mechanism, the fungus travels to open areas and helps new trees to colonize.

Spotted owls in the forest indicate that there are plenty of red-backed voles, and that things are well with the ecosystem. They indicate that the mycorrhizal fungal association is intact, and young trees are growing, to hold the soil of steep slopes. That tree tops are capturing moisture from the fog. That climate is being moderated. That streams are pure and cold, with deep log-dammed pools for spawning fish. That clean water is being delivered to the lowlands in a measured, usable manner. And that the cathedral beauty of ancient trees inspires the humans who walk at their feet.

It's worth noting that science learned about the mycorrhizal association of tree and truffle, and what it had to do with voles and owls, only in 1977. There must be countless other essential relationships in the forest which still remain unknown.

Instructions for How to Make a Forest

This knowledge is not merely academic. Throughout history, man has destroyed forests and been unable to bring them back. What used to be a vast North African Forest is now called the Sahara. And despite efforts to replant, we are not sure we know how to crop trees in a way that we can keep on doing it, generation after generation. In Europe and in China, forests that have been cut and replanted have refused to revive after the third or even second rotation, much to the detriment of the local standard of living.

In America, we have cut over 90% of our ancient forest, and what remains is fragmented, in many cases below the minimum area for a sustainable ecosystem. We urgently need to protect what is left, because although we know how to grow trees for the short term in plantations, we do not yet know how to grow a forest.

The old-growth forest knows, however. It is itself the library on the subject. Every single forest species is a textbook in that library. We would be mad to destroy the library before we even learn to read the books. If the last stands of old-growth forest are cut, where will we read its secrets, such as the story of the owl, the truffle, and the vole?

Smitty's spotted owls had been together for three years when I saw them. If all goes well, they will be together for many years to come, because spotted owls mate for life. Watching them, perched side by side, serene in their place and at ease with each other, I couldn't help but think of an old human couple sitting contentedly on a farmhouse porch after the day's work was done. Their posture and position bespoke trust, affection, enjoyment of each other's company. I'd like to think the human species can learn to rest so easily with itself and with the natural world.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

Diane PorterThis story first appeared in the Iowa Source, 1995.
Copyright 1995 by Diane Porter



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