The hoot owl, also known as the barred owl, is a native of the Eastern and North-Central parts of North America. For most of the past 25 million years, the Great Plains of North America, stretching from Alberta in the North to Texas in the South, split the continent in two with a 500-mile wide barrier of nearly treeless grassland unsuitable for the barred owl. Relentless human expansion in the recent past has (perhaps ironically) increased the number and size of trees through the Great Plains, following river valleys and settlements. Decades of fire suppression policy aimed at extinguishing all natural fires as quickly as possible contributed to the forestation of what was previously only grasses and shrubs.
Using these new outposts and habitat, the plot thickened as the barred owls moved west through Canada and the northern U.S. States, arriving in Washington, Oregon, and then south to California over the course of the 20th Century. These states had been the haunt of the smaller and less aggressive Northern Spotted Owl of lumberjack and environmentalist litigation fame, but the smaller owls had difficulty competing with the new arrivals, a situation exacerbated by their struggles to find old growth forest as human thirst for forest products grew. In recent years, the powers that be have found a potential "solution": kill the encroaching barred owls to save their endangered spotted cousins.
My initial horror at reading about this turned to outright sadness as I realized that the Northern Spotted Owls could be out-competed to extinction if nothing was done. Still, the "solution" proposed by the experts seems too barbaric even for us, and I can't help thinking that killing some animal or another is seemingly the only arrow in our quiver when we are faced with environmental imbalances. We kill coyotes by the thousands to save pronghorn antelope and sheep. We kill bison if they roam too close to our cows out of fear that they will pass the dreaded Brucellosis to our dinner, despite the fact that it was domestic cows that originally passed the virus on to the bison (it seems surreal that we have not learned anything from the historic massacre of the bison in the American West). We kill cormorants to save salmon (did it occur to us to stop eating them?). When there are too many elk, we give out more hunting permits. Not enough elk to satiate the hunters? Kill some wolves so the elk population can recover. We have only a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.
We simply have not internalized the reality that earthlings of different species are not merely planets revolving around the human sun, but stars of their own.
The fair solution, if anyone happened to look for it, would be to return the environment to it's earlier, stable, grasslandy state. Tear down the buildings, raze the cities, and let the trees burn. A touch drastic to be sure, and I'm not suggesting it, but until we are willing to address the actual causes of the environmental imbalances, we should understand that innocent animals will continue to pay the price for our mistakes. Placing the blame for diminishing spotted owl populations on the barred owl is a demonstration of our distorted view of reality. It follows that by adopting this strategy we are addressing a symptom of the problem and not the cause.
We are like the farmer who believes that he or she is doing the dairy cow a favor by milking her. After all, the cow is in pain in this moment with udders bursting with milk, but the farmer is oblivious to the fact that he caused the pain by spiriting away the rightful owner of the milk within hours of his or her birth. Swooping in at the last minute to relieve the discomfort of the cows hardly deserves praise. So it is with the owls. We swoop in to protect the spotted owls by killing barred ones, and pat ourselves on the back for our compassion, for being strong enough to do whatever it takes to protect the aggrieved spotted owl, thinking that this relieves us of the moral responsibility for causing the suffering in the first place. It does not. If our defining characteristic as a species is our ability for rational and abstract thought, surely we can come up with a solution that doesn't involve bullets, blood, pain, and death.
I hadn't considered any of these issues when I first met a barred owl this winter. His intimidating black eyes combined with the typical owlish attitude of condescension caught me off guard. Owls carry themselves with a certain aura of superiority, sitting there on their perches, watching, waiting, judging. Generations ago, birders described the call of the barred owl in a fanciful manner as a kind of "who cooks for you...who cooks for you all?" To me, it sounds more like "whoo-whoo...whoo-whooooo, whoo-whoo...whoo-whooooo whooooooo." But then, I'm from a no-nonsense generation; we have no time for fancy, no time for murders of crows, skulks of foxes, knots of frogs, ostentations of peacocks, or even parliaments of owls. Just count 'em, tag 'em, and run the data.
Our friendship overcame this rocky start as I got to know Vole Breath over the course of the winter. Each time I saw him I waved, said "hey buddy," or "ciao gufo," and approached slowly. He was always tolerant of my encroachments, allowing me to get closer and closer each time. After dozens of encounters, I can proudly say that he never flew away from me as I approached him. Flew toward me, yes, so close once that I had to draw my arms to my sides to avoid touching him as he flew past me in search of a more advantageous position for his hunt. Trout tickling is a viable pastime in Montana, but owl tickling? I could start a new trend.
I'll continue visiting Vole Breath until he tires of me or finds a grassier meadow with tastier voles. In the meantime, I hope nobody shoots him for being the wrong kind of owl, for having bars instead of spots, for being a symptom of our disease.