Barred owl sighted in Bend

Birders are abuzz about Farewell Bend Park's newest resident

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Jan 24, 2013 at 04:00AM

A barred owl, a cousin of the northern spotted owl, may be taking roost at Farewell Bend Park in Bend.

The owl has been seen around the park along South Reed Market Road near the Deschutes River crossing since about Sunday, said Devon Comstock, who was among the birders to go and see the owl this week. Word of the barred owl has been abuzz on a Central Oregon birder Listserv.

Comstock, program director at the nonprofit Heart of Oregon Corps, led a group of new workers Tuesday at lunchtime to see the owl. They found it sitting on a juniper branch, swiveling its head and looking around.

“It was just really being a typical owl during the day,” she said.

The owl has also been seen hunting in the park; two of the owls may be preparing a nest there, said Steve George, district biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend. If there are two owls they have yet to be seen together.

“They're not too afraid of people,” he said. “... So they can be quite visible.”

George said this is the first time he's aware of barred owls being seen in town.

Barred owls live in other cities in the state, though, said Robin Bown, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We have them breeding here in Portland,” she said.

The owls are often in long, skinny and forested parks along creeks, Bown said. They've also been seen and heard in the forest on the West Hills.

Urban sightings of barred owls underline some of their differences from the more famous spotted owl, the federal protection of which more than 20 years ago led to more strict rules on logging in the Northwest. While barred owls are “generalists,” she said spotted owls are “specialists.” That goes for food and habitat.

Barred owls are not a protected species under state or federal law. They will eat just about anything they find crawling, slithering or slimming, Bown said. They'll eat rodents, amphibians and snails, even other birds. Spotted owls focus on flying squirrels, red tree voles and dusky-footed woodrats, depending on where the owls live.

Barred owls don't mind being a suburban bird. Spotted owls typically stay in forests, particularly those with downed wood, snags and a variety of tree ages. Bown said spotted owls are found outside old growth forests, but old growth forests usually meet their preferences.

Given the broader palate of barred owls, they don't need as large a territory for hunting, Bown said. A pair of barred owls in Oregon typically need 800-1,500 acres; a pair of spotted owls need 2,500-3,500 acres. So it's easier for the barred owls to find a home range even on developed land. Bown wasn't surprised to hear about the barred owl in Bend.

“They can pretty much show up anywhere,” Bown said.

About a century ago barred owls were in the East and spotted owls were in the West, she said. The Great Plains appear to have been a huge divider between the similar-looking birds. In the early 1900s, the barred owls started a move west that took generations and possibly a detour through Canada to complete, although the specifics of how and why the birds made it to the West are still mysteries.

“Something broke that barrier that the Great Plains represented,” Bown said.

By the 1970s they were in Oregon, Washington and even parts of California.

Along with being less finicky than spotted owls, barred owls are slightly larger and more aggressive, according to a 2012 Fish and Wildlife Service report.

“Because barred owls may compete with spotted owls and may exclude them from substantial amounts of otherwise usable habitat, securing habitat alone may not be sufficient for spotted owl recovery, as barred owls may prevent or limit use of this habitat by spotted,” according to the report.

For about the past five years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has suggested the study of killing barred owls, by means of shotgun blasts, to stop their encroachment on spotted owls. The agency is still working on paperwork to do the study around Oregon, Washington and California, Bown said. There are no test sites planned for Central Oregon.

Barred and spotted owls will also breed and produce hybrid owls, which some call “sparred owls,” but Bown said the hybrids are rare.

“They kind of look halfway between the two and they kind of sound halfway between the two,” she said. “So, given the choice, they are probably not attractive to either species.”

The names of the two owls describe their looks. Both have spots on their heads and wings, but barred owls have a sequence of bars on their underbelly while spotted owls have more spots, George said. They are both about a foot tall, with the females in both species bigger than males.

Barred owls are typically larger than their spotted cousins, Bown said, but it is hard to see the size difference.

“If they weren't side-by side,” she said, “you won't recognize it.”