In addition to the popular hawks, eagles and falcons currently on exhibit, the High Desert Museum now has a fifth owl species: the barred owl.
The barred owl is native to the mixed deciduous/coniferous forests of the East Coast.Throughout the 20th century the species made a rapid westward expansion across the northern Great Plains, into the Washington Cascades, and now south into Oregon and California. The owl has become controversial due to its status as an invasive species and its effect on spotted owl populations in the Northwest.
“The recent declines in spotted owl populations are strongly correlated to the invasion by the barred owl,” said John Goodell, curator of natural history at the High Desert Museum. “The northern spotted owl is a habitat/prey specialist, whereas the barred owl is a generalist. They’re opportunistic, feeding on a wide variety of small mammals, rabbits, reptiles and birds.”
Goodell said the barred owl is bigger, more aggressive and nests in higher density. They disrupt the nesting of the spotted owl, compete with them for food, and literally chase them out of the area. “In habitats where the barred owl competes with the northern spotted owl, the barred owl tends to win every time.”
Wildlife managers entrusted to protect the spotted owl’s dwindling populations are now faced with a painful choice: Allow the invasive barred owl to continue displacing the spotted owls – likely resulting in the eventual extinction of the northern spotted owl — or, protect existing populations of spotted owls by removing barred owls found within spotted owl habitat.
“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believes proactive removal of barred owls may be critical to the future of the spotted owl,” Goodell said. “Habitat protection doesn’t seem to be enough, so they’ve started an experimental barred owl removal program.”
The High Desert Museum’s barred owl joins four other owl species on exhibit: The barn owl, great horned owl, burrowing owl and screech owl. The barred owl is housed indoors, in the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center. In all, there are more than 20 birds of prey in the Museum’s live collection.