Eric Forsman tramped across the spongy ground with one ear tipped to the tangled branches above. We were circling an isolated Douglas fir and cedar stand near Mary's Peak, the highest point in Oregon's Coast Range, scouring the trees for a puff of tobacco-hued feathers. I had come to see one of the planet's most-studied birds—the Northern spotted owl—with the man who brought the animal to the world's attention.
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Forsman stopped. "You hear it?" he asked. I didn't. Above the twitter of winter wrens I caught only the plunk of a creek running through hollow logs. Then Forsman nodded at a scraggly hemlock. Twenty feet off the ground, a cantaloupe-size spotted owl stared back at us. "It's the male," he whispered.
Before I could speak, Forsman was gone. The 61-year-old U.S. Forest Service biologist zipped down one fern-slippery hill and up another. For years, he'd explained, this bird and its mate pumped out babies like fertile field mice, producing more offspring than other spotted owls in the range. Forsman wanted to reach their nest to see if this year's eggs had hatched—and survived.
Every chick counts, because spotted owls are vanishing faster than ever. Nearly 20 years after Forsman's research helped the federal government boot loggers off millions of acres to save the threatened owls, nature has thrown the birds a curveball. A bigger, meaner bird—the barred owl—now drives spotted owls from their turf. Some scientists and wildlife managers have called for arming crews with decoys, shotguns and recorded bird songs in an experimental effort to lure barred owls from the trees and kill them.
To Forsman and other biologists, the bizarre turn is not a refutation of past decisions but a sign of the volatility to come for endangered species in an increasingly erratic world. As climate chaos disrupts migration patterns, wind, weather, vegetation and river flows, unexpected conflicts will arise between species, confounding efforts to halt or slow extinctions. If the spotted owl is any guide, such conflicts could come on quickly, upend the way we save rare plants and animals, and create pressure to act before the science is clear. For spotted owls "we kind of put the blinders on and tried to only manage habitat, hoping things wouldn't get worse," Forsman said. "But over time the barred owl's influence became impossible to ignore."
When I finally hauled myself up to Forsman, yanking on roots for balance, I found him squatting on the ground looking at the curious female spotted owl. The bird, perched unblinking on a low branch not ten feet away, hooted a rising scale as if whistling through a slide flute. Her partner fluttered in and landed on a nearby branch.
Both creatures stared intently at Forsman, who absently picked at a clump of fur and rodent bones—an owl pellet regurgitated by one of the birds. Moments later the female launched herself to a tree crevice some 40 feet off the ground. Her head bobbed as she picked at her nest. Over the next hour, we looked through binoculars hoping to spy a chick.
It was here, not half a mile away, above a trickle of runoff called Greasy Creek, that Forsman saw his first spotted owl nest in 1970. He had grown up chasing great horned owls in the woods outside an old strawberry farm near Eugene, and as an undergraduate at Oregon State University he prowled the forests in search of rare breeds. One day he shimmied up a tree and poked his head inside a crack. He escaped with brutal talon marks on his cheek and one of the earliest recorded glimpses of a spotted owl nest. He also scooped up a sick chick—its eyes were crusted shut—planning to nurse it back to health and return it to its nest. When he came back, though, the adult birds had vanished, so Forsman raised the baby bird himself. It lived in a cage outside his home for 31 years.
Drawn by the romance of this obscure creature that hides in dark woods, Forsman became a spotted owl expert. He was the first to note that the birds nest primarily in the cavities of ancient trees or in the broken-limbed canopies of old-growth forests, where they feast on wood rats, red tree voles, flying squirrels and deer mice. Logging of the Pacific Northwest's conifers accelerated during the post-World War II housing boom and continued afterward. Forsman and a colleague, biologist Richard Reynolds, warned Congress and the U.S. Forest Service that shrinking forests threatened the owl's existence. They sent one of their first letters, to then-Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, in 1973.
The owl population crash finally began in the 1980s, about the time the environmental movement was finding its footing. In an effort to save what remained of the old-growth forests the birds needed to survive, radical environmentalists pounded steel or ceramic spikes into firs, which threatened to destroy chain saws and mill blades. They donned tree costumes to attract attention to their cause and crawled into tree platforms to disrupt logging. Counter-protests erupted. In angry mill towns, café owners provocatively served "spotted owl soup" and shops sold T-shirts and bumper stickers ("Save a Logger, Eat an Owl"). There were lawsuits, and, in 1990, the Northern subspecies of spotted owl came under the Endangered Species Act (two subspecies in other parts of the country were not affected). A sweeping federal court ruling in 1991 closed much of the Northwest woods to logging. By the end of the century, timber harvest on 24 million acres of federal land had dropped 90 percent from its heyday. The spotted owl crystallized the power of the species-protection law. No threatened animal has done more to change how we use land.