Eulogy for an Owl

When we protect endangered species, are we helping the animals—or just ourselves?

I SEE HIM ON MY HIKE while the girls are still at school. Must’ve heard my approaching footsteps and flew up to the branches to get out of harm’s way. That’s what caught my eye—the blurred, sudden movement, the kind of spasm of peripheral vision that makes you stop, listen, hold your breath.

I scan the late autumn canopy, and when I finally find him, he is perched in a nearly naked oak tree, maybe fifty yards from where I’m standing. It’s an owl, a good-sized one, with mottled brown and white plumage; a round, gray face; and deep black eyes. He’s silent, still, watching me. Distrustful of my intentions.

The eyes take me right back to the Pacific Northwest, from where our family has recently moved—a place I desperately miss and a place where the auspicious sighting of a wild owl with black eyes is marred by a history of conflict.

Of course, the owl story that immediately comes to mind is not a new one. I remember clipping National Geographic articles about the loss of northern spotted owls in clear-cut forests of the Pacific Northwest over twenty years ago, for a group presentation in my high school ecology class. This was the 1990s, when spotted owls were the symbol for environmental conflict after their listing under the Endangered Species Act forced the timber industry to yield to the species’ critical habitat boundaries—the most controversial conservation plan in U.S. history. The federal government protected 24.5 million acres of forest with its 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, rendering large tracts of previously harvestable forests inaccessible under the new management rules. 

I remember the glossy magazine photos of loggers carrying protest signs declaring an owls-versus-jobs war with phrases like Owls Won’t Feed My Family and Loggers Are an Endangered Species. I remember the I Love Spotted Owls … Fried bumper stickers, complete with a cartoon figure of a plucked, roasted bird.

This owl perched in the naked oak before me looks strikingly similar to a spotted owl, with its midnight eyes and yellow beak, its chestnut feathers flecked with snow. But I am in Vermont, so this has to be a barred owl, an eastern owl that was not a main character in that western story.

Until eventually, it was.

***

THE BARRED OWL, Strix varia, is a native easterner. It lives in mixed forests, with large trees and snags that offer ample nesting sites, and survives on the array of small rodents, amphibians, and birds found in mature forest stands. Its historic nineteenth-century range covered most of the eastern United States—from northeast to southeast and extending into the Midwest—then abruptly halted along a line right down the middle of the country, where eastern hardwood forests gave way to the open prairies of the Great Plains. But sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, barred owls began creeping west of the Mississippi River and continued pushing until they had gone as far as they could go. If you look at a current map of their range, you can see their apparent expansion through one relatively narrow band that reaches westward across Canada and drops back down in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California—like a long arm slung around the shoulder of the Pacific Northwest.

Nobody really knows how or why barred owls began moving west, but many have speculated that we humans had something to do with it. Perhaps their expansion was caused by dramatic changes to the Midwestern landscape as people settled farther west, removing any challenges that had previously made it harder for them to survive. Or maybe it had more to do with deforestation in Canada, the disturbed patchwork of trees serving as a sort of fragmented highway into the heart of old growth stands in the Northwestern United States. Or maybe it was a natural expansion, influenced by climate and the availability of food, or some combination of all of these factors. And perhaps none of this would have mattered were it not for the synchronicity of the barred owl’s colonization of the West with the plight of their western cousin, Strix occidentalis caurina, the northern spotted owl.

Northern spotted owls are the quieter, more passive of the two. They are more particular about their prey and less tolerant of changes to their habitat, preferring undisturbed old growth forest stands for their nesting sites. They are also smaller and less aggressive than barred owls—so all other things being equal, the finicky spotted owl doesn’t stand much of a chance in direct competition with its brash cousin from the East.

Add to the scenario the loss of nearly 88 percent of spotted owl habitat since the early 1800s, and you can see why the circumstances of the species are as dire as they are. As barred owl populations continued to increase in the West, the simultaneous clear-cutting of mature forests in the Pacific Northwest evicted spotted owls from their habitat, reducing their range to a few isolated old growth forest stands in southern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. By the 1980s and 1990s, the barred owl’s westward expansion had completely engulfed the limited range of the northern spotted owl—which became the tipping point for the spotted owl’s survival.

In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The critical habitat area that was set aside should have been enough—yet over the next two decades, wildlife biologists watched in frustration as barred owl populations swelled in protected forests. In a sort of wild version of musical chairs, the larger and more aggressive owls out-competed spotted owls for food and nesting sites, causing the population of spotted owls to plummet. Barred owls now outnumber spotted owls in some areas of the threatened owl’s range and have even been known to mate with spotted owls, creating a new hybrid bird.

Now survival of the native species is so imperiled that FWS scientists have determined that drastic measures must be taken to manage barred owl populations in spotted owl habitat areas. Otherwise, the northern spotted owl is likely to disappear forever.

***

WHEN WE HIKE in the woods near our new house, my youngest daughter collects pocketfuls of acorns and points out the shagbark hickory trees. Maggie was born when we lived out west, so she’s the only native Oregonian in our family. Sometimes I think it’s her fascination with nature and the novelty of these eastern plants that has made the transition so easy for her. I wish I could say the same.

Here in Vermont, third graders learn about the natural history of their state. When I volunteer at Maggie’s school, I help her classmates edit paragraphs they have written about forest succession over time—how pioneer lichens and mosses give way to grasses and herbs and shrubs, which are then taken over by sun-loving coniferous trees, which provide shade for the hardwood seedlings, which then grow tall and crowd their predecessors in a mature hardwood forest. Any disturbance to the forest can upset the cycle.

One day while I’m there, a wildlife specialist visits the classroom as part of the culmination of their month-long forest unit. He brings out one of his wildlife ambassadors—a beautiful barred owl with a lame wing—and the kids, who have spent the last month dissecting owl pellets, and reading and highlighting articles about owls, are elated. They murmur about his dark eyes and his soft, speckled body; they laugh at the wonderful hooting sounds he makes, the way he ruffles his neck feathers (That’s gular fluttering, Mommy), and the squirt of shit he leaves on the rug.

One child raises his hand and shares that the barred owl is actually kind of a bully because it likes to steal the nests of other owls. Maggie’s teacher nods, the way teachers do when kids make such assertions, and says that, in fact, in places like Oregon, barred owls are very controversial because they are crowding out the native spotted owls.

I find myself pleased with the reference to Oregon, and I look to connect my gaze with my daughter’s. But she is not thinking about me or Oregon at all. She is staring at the owl, enraptured. I realize now that to a child, wildlife is always something that inspires awe and joy, like chocolate or snow—infinitely good, no matter what. To an adult, well, I guess it depends on where you are.

***

BUT MAYBE that’s not entirely true, either. A few years ago, back in Bend, the town in Central Oregon where we used to live, a barred owl began making regular appearances in one of the community parks. He became somewhat of a celebrity, and for a few weeks, photographers and local admirers would line up along the footbridge over the Deschutes River in Farewell Bend Park, hoping to get a glimpse.

The local news station even recorded footage of the owl for a human-interest piece that aired on the evening news. They took a few minutes to interview a representative from the local chapter of the Audubon Society, who noted the significant threat that barred owls presented to our native spotted owls—but that didn’t seem to matter to any of the people flocking to the park. This was a real owl, a wild owl, not some theoretical threatened owl.

Maybe this barred owl was the closest thing to a wild encounter that any of those people had ever experienced. Or maybe they felt a connection to him because, like most of them, he’d come from elsewhere, had invaded a new territory and claimed it as his own. I remember thinking, I get that. I’m not originally from here, either.

***

I GREW UP in Ohio and have wanted to live out west for as long as I can remember. My father’s family was from Arizona, and whenever we went out there to visit, I would drink up the big sky; the wide, open landscape; the mountains; and the ponderosa pines. Wildlife encounters out there held for me a measure of danger and authenticity that I seldom felt with the gray squirrels clucking and twitching in the pin oaks of our suburban yard. Out there, you might see a rattlesnake or a mountain lion—the evidence of their existence was found in the molted ghosts on my grandmother’s property or the warning signs at the head of a trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains. And then there were the nights. Dark sky and diamond dust that seemed to extend beyond forever. Clear crystal nights punctuated with the yips and howls of coyote packs prowling through the desert brush. The West, it seemed, offered more ways to reconnect with your animal self.

Insecurities (financial and otherwise) kept me relatively close to home for college, but after I got married and completed graduate school, I convinced my husband to move out to New Mexico, where we worked in the city during the week and played in the mountains on the weekends. I can remember huddling with our dogs under the rain fly of our tent on our first real backpacking trip when a sudden lightning storm over Hamilton Mesa in the Pecos Wilderness sent us scurrying for a ditch. The pound of hail, the flash of light, the smell of wet dog and earth—everything about our move out west made me feel humble and alive.

We returned to the East, briefly, for my husband’s cardiology fellowship and the birth of our oldest daughter. But our wanderlust sent us back—to the Pacific Northwest this time, into an old Central Oregon logging town whose last felled tree had been pushed through the lumber mill on the banks of the Deschutes River over a decade before we arrived. Now it was a tourist town, a playground of snow-capped mountains and snowmelt streams, a place that was ripe for people like me. Westward-looking people who wanted more space, more land, more sky. People who, for whatever reasons, wished to escape the East.

***

WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I sat his parents down to tell them of our plans to move to Oregon, his father said, “Where the hell is Bend, Ore-gone, anyway?”

We defended our decision. We missed the western landscape, we told them. We missed the mountains, and the camping and hiking we used to do when we lived out west before. We wanted to be back in capital-N nature, the kind of Nature where you can get lost. My husband’s work as an on-call cardiologist had a demanding schedule, so we wanted to live where we might otherwise vacation. We thought that if we didn’t do this now, we might never see Nature again.

They were supportive, yes, but hurt. I could tell. I imagine they thought we were telling them that they were not enough, that family just wasn’t a sufficient reason for us to stay and raise our children in the East. My mother-in-law looked me in the eye and said, “You have to make your choice. You make your choices based on your priorities.”

***

SOMETIMES THEY DON’T ALIGN. Of course, one of the goals of conservation biology is to preserve biodiversity within an ecosystem, make sure that the health of the system is maintained so no species go extinct. But another, sometimes contradictory goal is to allow the system to evolve naturally, allow species to do what they would naturally do.

So what is “natural” in this case? If conservation biologists did nothing about the barred owl, its competitive advantages would likely cause the northern spotted owl to disappear. And given the likelihood that human-induced disturbances were at fault for orchestrating a direct competition between these two owl species in the first place, it seemed a rather unnatural natural selection.

And yet the alternative mode of intervention to save the spotted owl seemed unsavory: killing one owl to save another. You could make the argument the action was permissible, in fact our moral obligation—an ironic logic based upon a potentially inflated presumption that lethal removal of barred owls from spotted owl habitat would fix the problem forever, like being able to stop a wave. Like the magical thinking involved when a child glues together pieces of his mother’s broken vase and places it just so at its usual place on the fireplace mantel. Maybe she won’t see it’s broken. Maybe she’ll never notice all the damage I’ve done.

***

MY HUSBAND SAYS he can think only in medical terms because that is what he does—but this he knows for sure: you can’t half-treat. If you half-treat an infection, you will get a worse, prolonged infection with drug-resistant bacteria. The same goes for cancer. Half-treat a cancer diagnosis, and you may eventually get more cancer. Maybe recovery of an endangered species is like that, he says. It will never recover as long as you are only treating it halfway.

Which is disheartening when you consider that only a little more than 1 percent of species listed under the Endangered Species Act have been delisted as a result of their recovery. It makes you wonder whether species recovery is really the goal or whether it’s just the prevention of extinction. A vain attempt to preserve a morsel of the natural history as it was before we came along.

But I see the utility in that, too—because it can serve as the foundation for truly loving a place. And truly loving a place fosters an ethic for its care, instills the principles for preservation. Back in Bend, while my husband worked long hours at the hospital, I religiously took our little girls to the High Desert Museum so we could learn about the wildlife, history, and culture of the place we had chosen to live.

We studied exhibits about forest fires. We read about the Native American tribes, examined pieces of meticulous beadwork. We learned about the original lumber mills, watered the vegetable garden outside the living history cabin in the reproduction logging camp. We visited the museum’s resident animals: the lynx, the otter, the bobcat. We peered at the spotted owls in their dark simulated habitat, knowing that the owlets from the clutches of eggs they produced would be whisked away from them and taken to Canada, to help sustain a wild population that was gravely at risk.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the barred owls out there, too. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They were probably just following some inexplicable urge to expand and settle into a new open space. But then, perhaps I felt this way because I was harboring a different kind of guilt.

***

WE HAD PROMISED we would come back and visit. We told them it would be the same, only we’d have to fly in a plane instead of ride in a car. We believed we could defy the rules of time and distance, that we could manage the burden it placed on our connection to our eastern terrain.

But even the best-laid management plans can be usurped by the unforeseen. My husband’s schedule became an anchor, a prison, impossible to escape. He worked and worked, tending to the fragile hearts of perfect strangers. Meanwhile, the girls and I explored the quiet corridors of national forests, the tadpoled shores of mountain lakes, nurturing our transplanted roots to see if they would take.

***

IT WAS JANUARY 2013 when the visiting barred owl wooed the people of Bend in the park along the Deschutes River. In February, it stopped making appearances, and in March, a barred owl—the same owl?—was found dead in the area, likely hit by a passing car. The local paper ran an article, citing a dislocated left shoulder and lower jaw as well as a crushed eye socket among the owl’s fatal injuries. Widespread grief circulated through social media.

Six months later, the FWS announced its Record of Decision to authorize experimental lethal and non-lethal removal of barred owls from four study areas in the Pacific Northwest to aid the managed recovery of spotted owls.

***

THE NEWS of the park owl’s death saddened me, and I felt compelled to write an essay, a sort of eulogy. But during my research, I found that someone else had already done this—more than thirty years ago.

In 1980, the late radio legend Paul Harvey delivered “Eulogy for an Owl” on The Rest of the Story, his ABC news radio program. Harvey’s commentaries often delivered interesting unknown facts about celebrities of the time. “Eulogy for an Owl” was a story about the late Walt Disney, and it went something like this:

A young boy named Walt lived with his family on a farm in the Missouri countryside. One day, when he was about seven years old, Walt went exploring in the family’s apple orchard and happened upon a sleeping owl perched in a low branch of an apple tree. Hoping to capture it for a pet, he quietly sneaked up to the owl and grabbed it by the legs. The startled creature suddenly awoke, screeching loudly and wildly flapping its wings. Terrified, Walt threw the bird upon the ground and stomped it to death. He fled the scene but later returned to the orchard to bury the owl.

The owl visited Walt in his dreams for many months after the event, but he repressed his shame and told no one of the incident until years later. He never again killed a living creature and would always remember feeling regret for his selfish and reckless behavior. Harvey summarized the story this way: “Although all the boyhood promises could not bring that one little owl back to life, through its death, a whole world of animals came into being.” He was referring, of course, to Walt Disney’s body of creative work, to the love of animals reflected in Disney’s animated films. Walt’s drawings were his atonement.

***

INTERESTING WORD, atonement. From the old English at one, meaning “unity,” or at-one-ment, meaning “reconciliation,” or “the condition of being at one with others through the act of making reparations.” Walt Disney never killed another creature, but we did, and we will again. It seems our own particular brand of regret is of the eye-for-an-eye variety.

An owl-for-an-owl, that is.

But maybe that’s the ethical limit of our fractured animal selves. We are, after all, still animals—biologically programmed to expand and conquer and multiply, no more willing or able to control our unregulated growth than the barred owls are able to control theirs. History tells us this is true.

Here’s the difference: we know we are not immune to the cumulative impacts of our collective actions. If there’s anything we have learned from nature, it’s that we are both the owl and the clear-cut forest, the dinosaur and the asteroid. It’s the worst kind of irony, the kind of conscious unconsciousness from which Greek tragedies are made.

We make prescriptions to save this and manage that, all the while knowing that nature is not beholden to our desired wish. I think our attempts to control evolution are simply a product of our remorse about decisions we have made. Maybe that’s the thing that distinguishes us from the other creatures of the world—the ability to feel remorse.

***

I WAS THE ONE who received the call. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. My husband’s father, a fatal heart attack. A million miles away.

My husband was on call at the hospital in Bend that morning, probably listening to someone else’s heart while the one in his father’s chest stopped beating clear across the country.

This is the part where I tell you I believed it was all my fault: I had infected my husband with my wanderlust; I had set the stage for this tragic irony nine years before. Of course, I know the grieving mind defies logic, but the underlying truth remained: we had squandered our remaining time with him because we thought he would always be around.

No amount of glue was going to repair the vase I had accidentally shattered that day. You have to make your choice. You make your choices based on your priorities.

***

SOMETIMES THEY DON’T ALIGN. The barred owl looks upon me from the branch of a naked oak. I almost can’t take my eyes away, I’m so enamored with this bird.

It’s hard to imagine the emotion that must surface for a wildlife biologist who has been ordered to kill an owl. The internal wrestling—which love prevails, what’s right and wrong, whether to shoot or not to shoot. The narrative you must tell yourself to justify the action you’re about to take.

I get that. I didn’t want to pull the trigger, either. But moving back east was something I was willing to do because I thought that something important was endangered. An owl for an owl, I suppose. I did it for my husband. I did it for my girls. Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. I’m not certain I ever will.

And maybe that’s OK—the not-knowing part, that is. I don’t know if this move will create a permanent equilibrium or if our girls will grow up and head back out west to live forever. All I know is that these are the kinds of reparations we make to show our love for the ones we’ve hurt. At-one-ment.

I turn to let the barred owl go, continue my morning hike on a wet kaleidoscope of fallen leaves. Still missing the vanilla scent and whispered sway of ponderosa pines.

About the Author

Mary Heather Noble

Mary Heather Noble’s writing is influenced by environmental issues and informed by her former career as an environmental regulator. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Minerva Rising, The FEM, Quartz, and Utne Reader, among others, and has been honored with the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, sponsored by Ashland Creek Press.

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