Giving a Hoot
Meet the controversial Mexican spotted owl

The Music Man
Brandon Perrault provides the soundtrack for Grant County

Happy Trails
The Gila Back Country Horsemen celebrate 10 years

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Is the Spay & Neuter Awareness Program running out of time?

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011

Giving a Hoot

Meet the Mexican spotted owl — a medium-sized owl at the center of a giant controversy.

By Jay W. Sharp

Since the 1980s, the Mexican spotted owl — with its dark-eyed, studious-looking face — has played an iconic role in some of the most rancorous territorial disputes in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. From the center of the storm, the species — listed as "threatened" in 1993 under the Endangered Species Act — has helped set the logging industry against environmentalists, the ranching industry against environmentalists, land developers against environmentalists, governmental agencies against environmentalists, and environmentalists against environmentalists.

Mexican spotted owl in an alcove in a cliff in a canyon in the southern Gila Wilderness. Photo shot in the early 1980s by author Jay W. Sharp.

The conflicts have sometimes grown bitter and angry. I remember a restaurant in Springerville, Ariz., advertising — facetiously — "Mexican spotted owl burgers" on its menu.

I recall a US Forest Service official from the southwestern New Mexico area telling me several years ago that he seriously thought that he might get shot for trying to enforce federal laws. According to reporter Tony Davis in a 2001 High Country News article, Catron County's commissioners once passed laws that asserted the county's right to help manage federal lands and that "authorized arrest of federal agents."

Battle Lines

The controversy has revolved primarily around the use and management of the land and differences in value systems.

The logging industry has wanted to cut timber from old-growth forests, growing its business as well as local economies and employment. Environmentalists have insisted on preserving the old-growth stands — critically important habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, which numbers no more than 1,500 to 2,000 across its entire range, according to New Mexico Game and Fish.

The ranching industry, with a century of tradition, lifestyle and livelihood at stake, has demanded that livestock have free access to the grass and water of the rivers and streams. Environmentalists have insisted on protecting drainage areas from overgrazing and the consequent erosion and stream degradation, which inflicts deleterious effects on the habitats of the Mexican spotted owl as well as other wildlife.

Land developers have promoted recreational and urban development within the forests, bringing the attendant benefits of growing economies, increased population and more jobs. Environmentalists have held the preservation of the natural landscape to be more important.

Government agencies, caught between competing interests, have sometimes failed to vigorously enforce standing federal laws. Environmentalist organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson have sued agencies multiple times, largely succeeding in compelling compliance with the laws.

Some environmentalists have complained that other environmentalists' actions have resulted in over-protection of forest lands, allowing undergrowth to flourish unnaturally, setting the stage for devastating wildfires. The "other" environmentalists insist that that they have helped make it possible for government agencies to clear brush and conduct controlled burns, which would reduce the risk; the agencies just need to do their jobs.

Even though numerous species have a stake in the outcome of these conflicts, it is the Mexican spotted owl — far less emotionally stirring than, say, the bald eagle, Mexican gray wolf or mountain lion — that has, for some reason not clear to me, taken center stage in the issues.

Distinctive Features

The Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) is one of nine or ten species of owls that occur either year-round, seasonally or rarely, in our mountain forest lands, according to David Allen Sibley in The Sibley Guide to Birds. Its closest relatives, which live outside our region, are the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), found in the old-growth forests of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, and the California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis), found in the mature woodlands of its namesake state. Another close relative is the barred owl, which lives well east and far north of the Mexican spotted owl's range.

The mature adult Mexican spotted owl measures roughly 18 inches from the leading edge of its beak to the tip of its tail feathers. It wings span some 40 inches, tip to tip. The bird weighs a pound to a pound and a half.

Like its spotted owl brethren, the Mexican spotted owl typically has a dark brown appearance with "elliptical or irregular white spot on [its] head, neck, back and underparts," according to authorities R.J. Gutirrez, A.B. Franklin and W.S. Lahaye, writing for The Birds of North America Online. Its principal wing and tail feathers — called "flight feathers" — have light brown bars. Its legs are fully feathered. Its roundish face has two brownish facial disks with dark brown borders — almost like heavy makeup — around each eye — so dark, in fact, that the eyes appear to be almost black. Its bill is yellowish green. The male and female look very similar, with comparable plumages, although the male, typically, is 5% to 10% smaller than the female.

The Mexican spotted owl is somewhat smaller than either the northern and California subspecies. It appears a bit lighter colored overall because its spots are proportionally larger, and its upper breast and its facial disks contain more white. Rarely, according to Gutirrez, Franklin and Lahaye, the bird may "appear palomino in color."

The owl "communicate[s] using a variety of hoots, 'barks,' and whistles." For example, the bird commonly issues a low pitched hoo — hoo-hoo — hooo, with the male's pitch slightly lower than the female's. Both sexes use the hoot to proclaim and defend territorial rights. The male uses it to announce a delivery of prey to its nesting mate. If excited, both sexes may end the hoot with a bark: hoo — hoo-hoo — ow! The male may also produce that statement during copulation. The female may whistle cooo-weep! to maintain contact or solicit sex with her mate. A shameless hussy, she often cries wraack! during copulation.

Range and Habitat

The Mexican spotted owl holds residence in the forests and deeply cut canyons of mountain ranges in the Four Corners states — New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado — as well as in western Texas and northern and central Mexico. In spite of its limited total population, it has, according to Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, "the largest geographic distribution of all spotted owl subspecies." Like the northern and California subspecies, the Mexican spotted owl may migrate with the seasons up and down mountain elevations, seeking tolerable weather and temperatures, but it remains near the vicinity of its breeding range.

In addition to rocky canyons, the owl occupies mixed pine and fir forests in the higher mountain elevations; pine and oak stands in the mid-elevations; and pion, oak and juniper woodlands in the lower elevations. It especially favors "uneven-age stands with high canopy closure and tree density, fallen logs and snags" — that is, habitats typical of old-growth forests, says the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

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