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Meet the controversial Mexican spotted owl

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  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.

owl
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.

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.'"



Diet

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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