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Meet the controversial Mexican spotted owl

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About the cover

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

Spotted Owl

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The owl's habitat security has improved since a 2008 federal court decision held that 8.6 million acres — or more than 13,000 square miles of federal land — in the Four Corners states were "critical habitat."

Owl Info

  • The Mexican spotted owl, according to Gutirrez, Franklin and Lahaye, has the extraordinary ability "to learn calls of neighbors and make fine adjustments to its own call to imitate a neighbor's call."

  • The owl sometimes bathes in shallow pools of water.

  • The owl has proved to be a battler in contacts with humans. When researchers have tried to capture fledglings for study, both parents have attacked with extended talons. During a capture, the owl rolls onto its back, talons extended, prepared for a fight.

  • A fledgling just learning to fly is so clumsy that it may find itself clinging upside-down on a thin branch, having lost its balance after an attempted landing.

  • Even though the Mexican spotted owl has benefited from the critical habitat designation, some studies suggest that the overall population continues to decline. Its future remains in doubt.
By definition, that is land that federal agencies must protect because it is vital to the preservation of a species. The owl's population in the Gila region, with our extensive mixed conifer forests and rocky outcrops, may now be largest — and most important — of any within its range in the Four Corners states, according to Forest Service staffers Joseph L. Ganey, Arthur I. Telles and Marikay A. Ramsey in their report, "Status and Ecology of Mexican Spotted Owls in the Gila Region, New Mexico." The Gila "may serve as an important source population and an important connecting link between habitat 'islands.'"


Foraging primarily at night, the Mexican spotted owl perches on the branch of a tree to watch and listen patiently, sometimes for hours, for prey to emerge. When it does, the bird dives, gliding down on silent wings, snatching the victim with its talons and severing the cervical vertebrae with its bill. If the owl misses its strike, it may run, wings extended, across the ground for a short distance after the prey, hoping for another chance to strike.

While it prefers rodents, it will also take lizards, smaller birds, sometimes bats and even insects. It caches surplus prey in secreted places on the ground, near fallen logs, among mossy rocks or in trees. In the Gila, the Mexican spotted owl especially favors woodrats, mice, rabbits, voles and pocket gophers, with the woodrats holding first place on the menu, according to Ganey, Telles and Ramsey.

Behavior and Life Cycle

The male and female form "long-term pair bonds while sharing the same home range throughout the year," according to Gutirrez, Franklin and Lahaye. They interact and roost together from late winter into the spring.

It is probably the male that initiates nest site selection come spring. Typically, the pair chooses natural sites or other animals' nests in older woodlands with high canopies, often locating in tree hollows, cliff alcoves and even mistletoe clusters. The female may remodel a nest to suit her taste by fashioning a shallow depression and lining it with a few of her feathers.

Two to three weeks prior to nesting, the male and female begin mating, an act they will repeat frequently until the female lays one to three two-inch-long pearl- to white-colored eggs — her only clutch for the year. She holds full responsibility for incubating the eggs, but the male provides prey for her during incubation and early brooding.

About a month after she lays her eggs, they begin to hatch — newborns helpless and blind, covered with white down. She broods the nestlings closely at first. She feeds them the prey delivered by the male. After eight or ten days, she begins to forage, helping the male capture prey. Now both feed their brood. As the nestlings grow, the female begins to roost outside the nest, although nearby, encouraging the young to develop their independence.

About a week after hatching, the newborns' eyes begin to open. Within several more days, their plumage begins to replace their white down. Their awareness and activity levels increase. At about five weeks old, the young birds have fledged. They begin to leave the nest, although they can count on their parents for nurturing and protection for another two to three months. The young birds begin learning to fly and hunt, clumsily and inefficiently at first but with rapidly developing proficiency. By fall, they have reached independence, usually leaving their nest area to strike out on their own. The parents remain in the area, but now roost apart, awaiting the next mating season. If it reaches adulthood, the Mexican spotted owl may live for 16 or 17 years in the wild.

Life's Perils

A young owl, particularly if it is just learning the skills of flying and hunting, frequently falls to predation, starvation or exposure. An adult bird may also fall to predation, especially by great horned owls, and it may also face starvation, especially when it has to compete with other predators during lean times.

Like many other species, the Mexican spotted owl may face environmental stress as global warming takes hold. It may also suffer, warn Ganey, Telles and Ramsey, from the introduction of exotic avian diseases such as West Nile virus and avian influenza.

Long-Term Outlook

After decades of conflict between competing interests, the Mexican spotted owl's chances of retaining a viable habitat have improved, particularly after the 2008 ruling that upheld the designation of 8.6 million acres as critical habitat. That was "a complete victory for the Mexican spotted owl," said attorney Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, according to a news release by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Such victories, however, have come, many would say, at the cost of economic growth, jobs and long-held traditions. For instance, after a 1998 legal agreement between the US Forest Service and environmentalists forced the removal of some 15,000 cattle from 230 miles of streams and rivers in New Mexico and Arizona, some ranchers gave up their historic livelihoods, according to Tony Davis in High Country News.

Rancher Eddie Atwood told Davis that "the 1998 agreement 'just about wiped out all of our cattle business,' forcing him to cut his herd by about 50% from 83 head. 'When it doesn't rain, and there's not enough snow in the wintertime, we just run out of water.'"

Although the environmental health of the streams and rivers began to improve, rancher Glen McCarty told Davis, "It just broke me. This will break anyone." McCarty had to pull 175 head of livestock off the river northwest of Reserve. "I'm having to sell cattle at one-fifth the normal price. How would you like to work at one-fifth your income?"

Environmentalists counter with arguments that say efforts to save the owl, especially when combined with programs to restore and properly manage forest lands, hold economic benefits. These include, for example, increased value of neighboring private property, enhanced appeal to tourists, and reduced risk of catastrophic and costly fires.

Meanwhile, the battle goes on. Just last year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a Arizona Cattle Growers Association challenge to the 2008 decision that 8.6 million acres were critical habitat.

The owl, for its part, flies on about its business, oblivious to the controversy over its future. Its only comment is a cryptic, "Hoo — hoo-hoo — hooo."

Jay W. Sharp is a Las Cruces author who is a regular contributor to DesertUSA, an Internet magazine, and who is the author of Texas Unexplained. To read all his guides to wildlife of the Southwest, see www.desertexposure.com/wildlife

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