Northern Spotted Owl Population Continues to Decline

A northern spotted owl peers down from an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. Photo courtesy of Charles Yackulic/U.S. Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Research Station.

The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was first listed as a federally threatened species in the late 20th century. The species found itself on the Endangered Species List after decades of overlogging and forest mismanagement in the Pacific Northwest severely degraded and restricted its available habitat. In 1994, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, a controversial management plan that was intended to protect spotted owl habitat by preserving old growth forests.

Yet 25 years after the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan, northern spotted owl populations continue to decline, according to a new study in the journal Ecological Applications. In fact, the species’ population is decreasing faster than expected.

According to the study, the reason for the continued decline is not logging or recreation, but rather competition with barred owls (Strix varia), a forest competitor that began to invade the northern spotted owl’s range 50 years ago.

A barred owl photographed in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Skip Russell via

“We have known for some time that northern spotted owls are reliant on older forest as habitat, that recovering northern spotted owls would require recovering this habitat, and that this process of recovery would take many decades,” says lead author Charles Yackulic of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Twenty-five years ago, however, we did not anticipate the increases in barred owl abundances would lead to a second major threat to northern spotted owl recovery.”

Barred owls challenge northern spotted owls for prime nesting spots and hunting areas in old growth forests. However, because barred owls are considered invasive species, they do not play the same role in the ecosystem and are causing ripples throughout the food web.

In response to these findings, the authors of the study recommend removing barred owls from the forest, which they identify as a viable forest management strategy. Combined with continued habitat protection and restoration, the authors hope the northern spotted owl population trend will turn around soon. Without any action to remove barred owls, the northern spotted owl could go extinct within decades.

Journal Citation: Yackulic, Charles, et al. 2019. “The past and future roles of competition and habitat in the rangewide occupancy dynamics of Northern Spotted Owls.” Ecological Applications. DOI: 10.1002/eap.1861.

The Lost Tinamou

This month we’re spotlighting a birder who’s doing wonderful things for bird conservation in Central America. Heidi Pasch de Viteri, born and raised in Guatemala, manages The Lost Tinamou, a nature preserve that takes up one-third of her family’s farm, Finca La Gracia.

Located on the Pacific slope of Guatemala, The Lost Tinamou sits on what was once a coffee plantation.  This land was set aside for conservation thirty years ago by her husband, Pedro Viteri.  The preserve is now a humid secondary growth forest that experiences both rainy and dry seasons throughout the year.  It’s nestled among the rubber tree copses, hay fields, and grazing dairy cattle of Finca La Gracia, and surrounded by the pineapple and sugarcane fields of neighboring farms.

Because of Heidi and Pedro’s efforts, the preserve has become an oasis for a wide variety of wild animals amidst many hundreds of surrounding acres of sugar cane plantations that blanket the countryside. And the birds? They’ve flocked to the Lost Tinamou for refuge during migration, nesting during mating season, and even year-round roosting. 

Birders can visit Lost Tinamou by making reservations for a day visit. The preserve offers visitors spectacular looks at birds that are otherwise hard to get in the area. Plumbeous kites, groove-billed anis, numerous orioles, and white-throated magpie jays have all been discovered nesting on the property. Yellow-naped parrots roost in the trees at night. Ferruginous pygmy-owls call out, and Bat falcons and lesser nighthawks put on excellent aerial-acrobatic shows as they glean the nearby fields for meals at dusk. Colorful birds, like turquoise-browed motmots, rose-throated becards, long-tailed manakins, green-breasted mangos, masked tityras, green shrike-vireos, and gartered trogons (among many others) paint the forest. And after nightfall, northern potoos and mottled owls can be heard calling across the reserve. To check out a complete list of the ever-growing number of species sighted at the Lost Tinamou, check out the Finca La Gracia eBird hotspot and checklists.

If you’re visiting Guatemala and looking for a unique birding experience hosted by a genuine lover of birds and conservation, visiting Heidi at the Lost Tinamou is just for you. For more information, please see the Lost Tinamou Facebook page.

A few birds mentioned in this post: