He’s the $300,000 bird, a fluffy ball of feathers that represents a last faint hope for his species.
His theoretical value represents the approximate annual budget of a provincial captive-breeding program for endangered northern spotted owls — one of Canada’s most endangered species — in north Langley that successfully produced just a single newborn this year.
Nameless so far, the young male born in April shares its enclosure at the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Centre with grandparents, Shakkai, hit by a car and brought to a rehab centre in 1994, and Einstein, taken from the Stein Valley as a juvenile in 2007.
The young bird is being raised by his grandparents, in part, because they are considered more experienced than its true parents, Shania and Scud, and offer the young a greater chance at survival.
“He’s just losing his down feathers and getting his adult plumage,” observes Ian Blackburn, a resource manager with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations.
One might conclude that the birth of just one owl this year is evidence that the costly, decade-old program designed to replenish the wild population of spotted owls is failing.
But to hear the facility’s small, dedicated staff tell the story, the program has endured a long learning curve and more productive times are just ahead.
“We are the only captive-breeding program for the species in the world,” Blackburn said during an exclusive tour for Postmedia News. “There is no recipe book to say, ‘This is how you do it.’ It’s been a real challenge. But I have a high sense that this can be successful despite setbacks, challenges, and the unknown. I’ve very optimistic.”
There are 17 spotted owls in the facility, a combination of wild and captive animals, up from four in 2007.
Breeding pairs typically get two enclosures each, measuring six metres by 12 metres and joined by a small tunnel.
The owls perch on trees, branches, and stumps of western red cedars, red alders, Douglas firs, and big leaf maples, as well as beneath boxes that offer shelter from the rain.
Sheets of wood lattice restrict their vision of other owls in the complex, and strands of electrified wire protect against predators such as mink, weasel and raccoon trying to get inside the seven-metre-high chain-link fence. It’s the sort of cool, dark, leafy environment that the owls might enjoy in the wild.
Blackburn is assisted by two on-site biologists, Jasmine McCulligh and Karen McKeough, contracted through the B.C. Conservation Foundation. Interns also help to feed and rear the young birds around the clock.
“It’s a natural forest with natural sounds,” McKeough says. “We don’t talk to or around the owls. We leave them to do their thing.”
At the Langley facility, rodents are raised to be fed to the owls, sometimes still alive to help spur the birds’ natural hunting instincts. Two juvenile mice or one juvenile rat per day per owl — or 45 grams.
No more than a dozen adult spotted owls are thought to exist in the wild in southwestern B.C., from the Coquihalla Highway summit and Lillooet south to Whistler and the North Shore.
“It’s critical to have owls that are anchors in the landscape,” Blackburn said.
Captive-breeding success improved with the use of incubation in 2011, although suffered a setback with the deaths of two breeding females. While the literature said females in the wild mature by age three, researchers found that for those in captivity it is closer to seven or eight years.
“It’s been a delay in our success, waiting for these young females to mature,” Blackburn said. “It could be that, if you have two inexperienced birds, the bonding takes longer, or that they didn’t like the match selection.”
The facility hopes to have up to four breeding spotted owl females next year, with two more in waiting.
Normally, spotted owls lay an average of two eggs every other year. In the breeding facility, researchers strive for two clutches per year.
“We’re pushing them to the max,” McKeough said.
The first clutch is removed right away and put into an incubator to improve the chances of survival. The female considers it an act of natural predation and lays a second clutch of eggs, which is also removed.
It’s been a case of trial and error, determining the optimum temperature, moisture and rotation schedule for the eggs while in incubation.
The location of any given owl within a series of enclosures on the Langley property can affect its breeding success. Also, a female that produces three fertile eggs one year might produce just one or none the next.
“It’s very irregular,” Blackburn said. “Our hope and expectation was four fertile eggs per female every year. That was optimistic.”
Six spotted owls have been born at the facility.
The goal of the breeding program is 10 breeding pairs producing up to 40 eggs per year — one-quarter of those fertile, producing offspring that can be returned to the wild one year later. Success would ultimately be achieved at 125 pairs, or 250 adults, in the wild, which compares with an estimated 500 pairs before European settlement.
Barred owls — a similar species that can interbreed with but also attack spotted owls — have been captured from the wild to be bred in the facility and released on an experimental basis before researchers try releasing spotted owls.
Fourteen barred owls are on site, with nine due for release next year.
One option is to put a transmitter on a released barred owl and see what happens, or put a cage into a release site for, say, a month to get them accustomed with the area, then open the door and continue to feed them until they take off on their own. Another potential method is to find a wild barred owl and let loose a captive one in the same area in hopes they bond.
Spotted owls are medium-sized, measuring about 45 centimetres in length with a wingspan of about 90 centimetres. The dark brown feathers are speckled with small, roundish pale spots over most of the body and white horizontal bars on the tail. It has a round head with no ear tufts. The large, dark brown eyes are set in a light brown face. The species is also threatened in the U.S.
A barred owl has lighter feathers and vertical stripes on its chest. Not at risk, it has been steadily expanding its range in North America over the decades, sometimes at the spotted owl’s expense.
Barred owls are more of a generalist hunter, found everywhere from wilderness forests to urban parks, whereas spotted owls required large tracts of old forests where they prey mostly on flying squirrels.
Barred owls are also more prolific, at four eggs per breeding female per year in captivity, without double clutching.
“If they did that on an annual basis, you can only imagine the challenge … and why the barred owl has flourished,” Blackburn said. “They compete for prey and space with spotted owls.”
Over the years, researchers have moved 107 barred owls away from spotted owl territory and killed another 42.
The spotted owl’s plight is an indictment of logging policies of successive provincial governments that robbed the species of its habitat. Anti-conservation pressure by loggers didn’t help. As the late IWA Canada president Jack Munro allowed to a reporter in 1990: “I tell my guy guys if they see a spotted owl to shoot it.”
Blackburn described the spotted owl as an “umbrella species” that indicates the greater health of our forest ecosystems.
About 300,000 hectares of forest have been dedicated to the owls’ recovery in southwestern B.C., enough for an estimated 100 or more breeding pairs, Blackburn said. At least two-thirds of that forest is 100 years or older.
“That’s a good starting point. There’s a great opportunity we’ll be successfully reintroducing birds to some of these areas, if not all of them.”
The cost of the program and its modest success to date hint at a bigger picture — the difficulty of bringing a species back from the brink and the importance of maintaining a healthy biodiversity. There are also risks, including the potential for a disease to wipe out the entire captive population.
“Captive breeding is a last-ditch effort to save the species,” Blackburn said. “It’s not desirable to get to this state because it’s so dire. It takes a lot of effort to be successful. And it costs. These aren’t small projects.”
The breeding facility is situated on 10 leased hectares, part of the now-defunct Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre, a non-profit society that raised endangered species from around the world.
Mountain View ran into trouble with the SPCA in 2009 based on complaints by former and current employees. The facility voluntarily closed down even though no charges were ever laid.
For now, the breeding facility is closed to the public. That could change soon with public tours as a way to help raise money for the program, restricting visitors’ movements to avoid disturbing breeding animals. In the meantime, you can obtain news on the owls on Facebook atfacebook.com/nsobreedingprogram.
“We want to make it accessible, have schools come here,” said McCulligh. “It’s a fine line between education and disturbance.”
In addition to the B.C. government, current funders of the owls’ recovery include the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (a government and non-government partnership) and TD Friends of the Environment.