Barred owls are culled in B.C. What does it mean to shoot an owl?

May 7, 2017

I gasp for air. The trails aren’t challenging at Morrell Nature Sanctuary in Nanaimo, but I am not a typical hiker: I have asthma, a blocked nose in need of a septoplasty, and a club foot. Slight inclines make my body, raised on the flatness of Saskatchewan, huff and puff and sweat and snort. Somehow balanced on my shoulder is a heavy-duty tripod and camera. On this warm May evening, I’m trying to find and photograph my first barred owl.

Last month, an Instagram friend told me the location of a great horned owl nest. I spent several days photographing two juvenile owls, fuzzy and bumbling, nestled in a Douglas fir. It was my first time seeing owls in the wild, and the breathtaking experience (so much of life, it seems, takes my breath) pulled me away from landscape photography and into the world of birds. Not only am I searching for my first barred owl, but I’m also attempting for the first time to locate an owl on my own.

A sign at the sanctuary’s entrance said barred owls are usually found on Tranquility Trail, so that is the trail I’ve trekked for the last hour. The 111 hectares of second-growth forest, a kaleidoscope of greens, a burgeoning of a billion branches, is overwhelming. I am armed with a tip from my Instagram friend: listen for nearby birds, especially robins. He said smaller birds “mob” owls to ward them off, which, in addition to dive-bombing, includes aggressive chirping. Follow the chirping, he said, and you will most likely find an owl.

I reach the end of the trail. A black slug oozes in front of my feet, my most intimate wildlife encounter thus far. The surrounding trees, according to my eyes and ears, do not contain any owls. Frustrated, I turn around and head back down the trail. Finding an owl in the wild is much harder than finding a video of one on YouTube, but, for this new birder brought up in the age of instant gratification, I’m convinced the process should be at least somewhat similar in difficulty.

I walk briskly, hoping chirping birds will aid my search. It only takes twenty-five minutes to get back to the start of the trail. No barred owl. No robins. I want to give up. Before I leave, I decide to walk the short entrance trail that connects to Tranquility Trail and the steeper Rocky Knoll Trail. It’s almost sunset now, my last chance to find a barred owl and capture a photograph before the ensuing darkness.

A blob glides out of the trees to my left, through the clearing of the path, and into the trees to my right. I run over and glance into the maze of towering trunks. One hundred feet away, a barred owl is perched on a wooden post. It’s too far to get a decent photo, so I will have to ditch the well-groomed path to get closer. I enter the greenery, sword ferns beneath my skate shoes, and inch toward the owl. Ten feet in, I step on a fallen branch, sending a crack and echo into air. The owl swivels its head, looks at me, but doesn’t budge from the post. An army of American robins chirp at their predator.

I move as delicately as I can while balancing my tripod and camera. Once I’m fifty feet away, I set my gear down. The owl stares at me with vast brown eyes. I stare back. We are two animals with forward-facing eyes who share a common ancestor somewhere in our evolutionary histories. It’s watching me, unlike birds with eyes on the side of their head, as much as I am watching it. With a shaking hand, I repeatedly press the shutter button.

I wonder what information it’s gathering, whether or not it thinks I’m a predator. Morrell is a popular park, and I’m not the first human with which the owl has locked eyes. When I move to reconfigure my tripod, the owl flies off—silent into the woods.

During an online search the next day, I learn that barred owls, like me, are newcomers to British Columbia. In sections of old growth forest in B.C. and several U.S. states, they are considered invasive and are culled in government programs. If I was a biologist in one of these jurisdictions, I might have a shotgun in my hands instead of a camera.

Traditionally found only in eastern North America, barred owls were first recorded in B.C. in 1943. Today, they are the most common owl in the province and the Pacific Northwest. The most prominent theory explaining the range expansion is that increases in forest in the Great Plains, primarily due to settlers planting trees and suppressing fires historically set by Indigenous peoples, bridged the gap between east and west. Before, there weren’t enough trees in the Great Plains for barred owls to forage for food and hide from predators if they wanted to move westward. My reason for moving to British Columbia from Saskatchewan: attend a residential treatment centre for addiction. I was twenty-two years old, and it was my sixth attempt at recovery. I’m coming up on eight years of sobriety and would have died, in all likelihood, if I hadn’t moved.

Barred owls have a cousin species in the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl. To the average observer, the two birds are hard to differentiate. Both have round heads without ear tufts, brown eyes, and identical proportions. The main difference is that spotted owls have a spotted feather pattern instead of a striped one and a dark brown complexion instead of the barred owl’s light brown and grey.

Before the widespread arrival of barred owls to B.C., spotted owl populations were rapidly declining due to the logging of old-growth forests, the only habitat in which the species can survive. Barred owls, on the other hand, thrive in a range of habitats, including urban ones, which is one of the reasons their range expansion has been so successful. When barred owls arrived in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, spotted owl populations declined further.

Both owl species are territorial and will not withstand each other’s presence. However, it’s the slightly larger, more adaptable barred owl that wins out. Barred owls chase spotted owls from their territory, sometimes killing them. While barred owls are generalist predators, eating anything from rabbits to crayfish to domestic cats, spotted owls only eat prey from old-growth forests, such as northern flying squirrels. When spotted owls are forced from their already dwindling old-growth homes, they struggle to survive. Scientists estimate that less than six spotted owls remain in the wild in Canada.

In 2013, the province approved the shooting of select barred owls to help save the spotted owl population. Barred owls can only be shot in known spotted owl territory, which is small. The vast majority of barred owls won’t be affected. Oregon, Washington, and California have similar programs. These programs are wrong, my gut says. I feel bad for spotted owls, of course, but killing barred owls for simply surviving and thriving? The idea makes me uneasy.

February 1, 2018

I’m in the cramped office of Dr. Eric Demers, professor and co-chair of Biology at Vancouver Island University (VIU), the same school I attend as a creative writing student. Behind his desk is a wooden owl figure. Outside of his window, Anna’s hummingbirds sip human-made nectar from a feeder.

“It's always contentious when you have to control one animal to maintain another,” says Dr. Demers, who sports trim brown hair and a collared shirt.

Cats, dogs, rats, and even pigs are animals introduced by humans that are sometimes eradicated when protecting endangered bird species, he says. I note the difference between his example and the barred owl-spotted owl situation: barred owls weren’t transplanted by humans.

Dr. Demers says that “whether you take a cat and a rat and you put ‘em in a box and you bring them 500 miles somewhere else and let ‘em go, or you develop cities and change land practices,” the common denominator is human interference. Although, he does agree there is a distinction.

“I mean, [barred owls] are a native species, so I think it is treated a little differently than if it’s a totally introduced species that's brought from somewhere else, that's naturalised, but not endemic.”

Ethical dilemmas are at the core of conservation biology, Dr. Demers says.

“None of this is black and white, or ‘in this case, you do this. In this case, you never cross that line.’ It's always a lot greyer than that. So, we have to accept some level of responsibility for what's happening and then decide how much we value the resource that we're trying to save. Then the ethical question becomes: is it better to not interfere and then let things just go extinct . . . or do we recognise that there's value in those species, even though they're in low numbers, and then try to maintain that?”

I ask him if conservation biologists grapple with their emotional connection to animals and the nature of their job.

“Oh, for sure. I think [destroying barred owls] is the same as conservation officers who often have to destroy bears and cougars that never asked to be destroyed. I mean, they've basically just happened to encroach on an area, found a food source, which, usually, we leave out, and then they become habituated. They become a problem, a nuisance. I mean, again, they never asked for that.”

As a new birder, I am curious about how Dr. Demers became interested in birds.

“Ironically, my brother had a small pellet gun. I wasn't very old. I was probably seven or eight. Back then, parents let you do anything. I just grabbed it, and then I was walking around. I saw, on the water, there was a robin. I thought, ‘I can scare it by shooting beside it.’ Well, the thing was so poorly aimed that I actually shot it right out. Pop, dead. I just cried.”

Here is someone who has studied biology his entire life, specialised in ornithology, and yet his introduction to birds was killing one. It’s surprising yet captures our complex relationships with animals.

I don’t think my moral dilemma can be solved by science alone. Science can prove that killing barred owls has a positive effect on spotted owl populations, but that’s not the core of my concern, even though I would love for spotted owls to survive. Rather, it’s about further human intervention in the hopes mitigating the effects of past human intervention. It’s about innocence, a hazy concept in both the animal and human worlds. It’s about the act of killing itself—pointing guns and pulling triggers. I am not innocent. From youth to adulthood, high to sober, Regina to Nanaimo, the way I interact with and treat animals has evolved. It’s still evolving.

Summer 2002

There was an anthill across the street from my childhood home in Regina. The pile of dirt in a sidewalk crack had a tiny hole on top, an entrance to a subterranean world I could never see or experience. As a kid, I was fascinated by the comings and goings. A steady stream of black bodies dashed to and from the hole, sometimes carrying bits of food, sometimes carrying the dead.

One summer day, I brought my mom’s tape dispenser to the anthill. Whenever an ant left home, I pinned it to the sidewalk with a piece of tape. I watched my experiment subjects attempt to move, legs scurrying to no avail. Ants can carry up to 5,000 times their weight, but their extraordinary strength was useless against the sticky traps of a ten-year-old. I was in grade four with a bedtime I believed was two hours too early, my parents wouldn’t buy me CDs with “Explicit Content" warnings, yet, just outside my house, I could exercise control over a colony of animals.

That same year, my parents bought bug collecting kits for me and my younger brother, Turner. The kits included plastic forceps to pick up insects and a clear plastic container with air vents to house them. While Turner caught all types of wasps, spiders, and grasshoppers, I focused on creating the perfect habitat inside my container. I installed an even layer of dirt on the plastic floor. In the corner, I crafted a small pond. I pulled handfuls of grass from the lawn for food and added a couple of twigs as climbing instruments in case the soon-to-be-caught bugs needed to stretch their legs.

The idea that I could potentially make a comfortable and successful home for insects excited me. I wanted the satisfaction of knowing that my particular arrangement of dirt, water, grass, and twigs was crucial to their survival.

July 27, 2017

A juvenile barred owl perches on a low branch, eyes focused on a rabbit fifteen feet away. My photography companions, Matt and Gerry, watched the same owl nearly snatch a small, leashed dog from its owner who was too busy talking on her cellphone. The owl pulled away at the last moment of its dramatic dive.

“This is our chance to get a National Geographic shot,” Matt says, examining the proximity of the owl and rabbit.

Following the owl has led us from the forest to the tennis court parking lot of Bowen Park in central Nanaimo. On the concrete, Matt and I lie on our stomachs about twenty feet from the rabbit, angling our cameras for the best view. Matt, an old friend from Regina, moved to Nanaimo nine months ago to sober up.

Gerry, thirty years older than us, stands. He takes a 90-degree angle to Matt and me, anticipating a different attack pattern. Shockingly, the owl hasn’t moved yet. It’s still observing the rabbit from its branch. We consider the owl’s youth and botched dog snatching, and conclude that the juvenile is learning to hunt.

“Watching owls on a Friday night is so much better than sitting at home watching TV,” Gerry says. He’s balding, the hair he has left is grey, but there is more adventure in his bones than most twenty-year-olds.

“Do you think it’s messed up how excited we are about this bunny getting killed?” Matt asks.

The owl swoops. In incredible anticipation, the rabbit shoots into the air like a spring and dodges the attack. Another juvenile barred owl appears out of a different tree and dive-bombs the rabbit. The owl sibling misses its target, which hops into a bush. For now, the prey survives.

We flip through photos on the LCD screens of our cameras. Unfortunately, most of mine are blurry and out of focus. The owl, silent and motionless for minutes, made its decision to attack without giving us photographers a heads up. To feel better about the missed opportunity, I tell myself that even if the shots were sharp and in focus, the cement foreground would have made the photographs seem unnatural. In the world of wildlife photography, it’s best to have your subjects away from tennis court parking lots.

Even if the rabbit and owl encounter had happened in pristine forest, I’m not sure how “natural” it would be. The rabbits in Nanaimo are feral pet bunnies, a species originally domesticated in Western Europe. Barred owls wouldn’t have spread to B.C. without human interference. And what about me? Do I—human, ant-killer, meat-eater—fit the destructive bill of “invasive species”?

My parents barbecued steak so often when I was young that I complained. My opposition wasn’t based on ideology. Rather, I just liked hamburgers and hotdogs better and didn’t understand why we couldn’t eat them instead. My parents would always include vegetables in our meals, but I’d often refuse them.

I’m still a snot-nosed kid who says no to veggies. But, today, my partner Sarah is the recipient of my whining. She usually convinces me to eat some. I’m just old enough to consider my long-term health. If chomping down on some broccoli (or “little trees" as my parents called them to make them more appealing) will help me live a little longer, so be it.

I love animals, and, on the surface, vegetarianism is appealing. I hate the idea of animals suffering in the cruel conditions of factory farms. But, still, I eat the cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens raised in such places. I can disconnect from the harsh realities of the animals I eat because I’m disconnected from their lives. I don’t see them alive. I don’t see them raise their young. I don’t spend day and night searching forests for them with a tripod and a backpack full of camera gear.

What if I had spent the summer of 2017 photographing northern spotted owls instead of barred owls? Would my emotional loyalty lie with the endangered species instead of the invasive one? Probably. Without an emotional connection to barred owls, perhaps I could better rationalise their cull.

December 2011

I sit on the floor of my basement bedroom, surrounded by rotting food, broken glass, and unidentifiable garbage. The baseboards behind my back are lined with mould and give off a noxious odour. I hold a piece of aluminium foil to my mouth, flick the flame of my lighter underneath it, and inhale the streaming smoke.

Snowball, my family’s eleven-year-old American Eskimo, whines outside my door. I’m the only one home, and he wants in my room. I light the foil and suck more smoke. My eyes vibrate, and I can hardly breathe. Snowball cries then scratches the door, but I can’t let him in. When I smoke MDPV, sometimes the powder drops on the floor, and I don’t want him to get any on his paws. I also don’t want him digging in the mounds of trash. But mostly, I don’t want him to see me like this.

My parents bought Snowball on a whim in 2000. After lunch at the mall, we walked past a pet store and saw a white puppy behind glass. A couple of hours later, our family had our first dog. We named him Snowball because his fur was so white we could hardly see him when he ran in the snow.

I’ve ruined almost all of my relationships from the stealing and lying necessary to use drugs. Snowball, though, is my best and only friend. Taking him for walks, seeing his happy eyes while he roams the neighbourhood, keeps me alive. I have a photograph of him from a family camping trip in 2007, which I used my first DSLR camera to capture. In the photo, he had just walked out of our trailer. He’s looking up, his white fur in contrast with the burnt yellow background from the surrounding field, smiling.

Snowball cries again. I hope Grandma visits soon so she can give him the attention and love he deserves.

March 16, 2018

An Anna’s hummingbird perches on a thin branch full of ready-to-explode buds. Its iridescent feathers change colour as it shifts its head. When the bird looks away from me, its crown is scarlet. When it looks at me, it’s violet.

One of the most rewarding aspects of bird photography is the discoveries I’ve made with observation. After watching Anna's hummingbirds last year, I noticed they fly back and forth between a handful of favourite perches. To get close-up shots of this skittish four-inch bird like the ones I’m taking now, I wait quietly near a favourite perch until it arrives.

It’s almost spring. Most of Vancouver Island’s owl species are in courtship or nesting, including barred owls. It’s the best time to look for owls because they are highly active and vocal. Though, I have yet to find one in 2018. I’ve been shooting the hummingbirds behind Morrell Nature Sanctuary instead. Anna’s hummingbirds, located along the west coast of North America, are common in Nanaimo. So common I’d forgotten how striking they are. The one in front of me shimmers. It sings its screechy song, a sequence of buzzes you’d expect from a 1990s Nokia cellphone. Soon after, it darts beyond my eyesight.

Two hours of shooting and a full memory card later, I march back to my car in the Morrell parking lot. The tall powerlines along the path frame a mostly cloudless sky. I leave the direct sunlight for the shady forest, reach a metal gate, and enter back into the sanctuary. Then, the unmistakable sound of two barred owls calling each other: a raucous series of hoos that famously sound like “who cooks for you?”

The calls are loud and close. I race toward where I think one of the owls is calling from and scan the branches of the nearby trees. Fifty feet high on the branch of a mossy Douglas-fir, the tip of a barred owl. I go to the other side of the tree to get a better view, and the owl cranks its head to look down at me. It has two rings around its dark eyes with a streak in-between. The penetrating sun lights half of its body.

The owl is not in a great position to photograph, but I don’t care. I’m just happy to be near one. Since barred owls keep the same mate for life and live in the same territory each year, it’s likely one of the two adult barred owls I photographed here last year. I imagine pointing a shotgun at the two curious eyes staring at me. I could never pull the trigger.

I’m still working on my animal relationships. When I arrive home this evening, the first thing I’ll do is feed Tiggy, Sarah's 18-year-old cat she’s had since she was seven. Tiggy has kidney failure, so I’ll have to mix her meds, Sementra and Gabapentin, into her mushy food. Every time I do, I think about Snowball. He died in 2014 while I was living in Nanaimo, and I never had a chance to say goodbye. Today, I’m grateful for the opportunity to help Tiggy during her last days.

After a successful freedom of information request, I uncovered the exact numbers of B.C.'s barred owl cull: between 2007 and 2017, 52 barred owls were killed and 137 were captured and relocated. I said my moral dilemma can’t be solved by science alone, but here's a little science. I found a study, “Can culling Barred Owls save a declining Northern Spotted Owl population?" in a journal called Natural Resource Modeling. It answers its title question with this: “Even with culling Barred Owls and all other factors remaining the same, Barred Owls and Spotted Owls cannot coexist in the long run, thus complete elimination of the Barred Owl population is required for conservation of the Spotted Owl population.”

I have relationships with barred owls, but I wonder about those who have relationships with spotted owls. Maybe, right now, there’s a spotted owl fifty feet high in an old-growth red cedar. Maybe there’s an old birder underneath, watching the species with the same wonder he felt when he was young, wondering if he will be one of the last British Columbians to do so.