Bend, Oregon, U.S.A. - The Bend High Desert Museum announced that its spotted owl, Polka, died of old age. He spent the last years of his long life roosting high in an old growth snag made of concrete, behind a thick wall of bullet proof glass. And unlike most spotted owls in captivity, he fathered many offspring.
Polka was one of only a few dozen spotted owls kept in captivity and one of just two pairs to successfully hatch chicks. Jim Dawson, the curator of living collections at the high desert museum, thinks its time to start a serious captive breeding effort to aid in spotted owl recovery. Captive breeding isn't part of the species' current recovery plan, and it remains controversial.
Polka was a rehab bird, injured by biologists during a banding study. He bonded with a captive female owl with a broken wing named Dot, and the pair eventually produced eight chicks. Dot died last last year.
Biologists aren't sure why Polka and Dot reproduced so enthusiastically in captivity, or why other captive spotted owl pairs have been unsuccessful. Dawson says raptors are notoriously hard to breed.
''The pair, when they go into breeding mode, gets very territorial and they're very nervous about their nest site. You want them to focus on each other,'' he says.
Eric Forsman, a leading spotted owl biologist who captured Polka and Dot, says the trick may simply be finding pairs of owls that are compatible with each other, trying with a larger sample of owls. But like many scientists, he's skeptical captive breeding can help save the species.
''We haven't attempted it with very many individuals…I think given enough time and practice, we could probably breed spotted owls in captivity, but I'm not sure that's the solution to our problem,'' the U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist says.
The problem,, is that even if you could increase owl numbers in captivity, the limited old-growth habitat available in the wild is increasingly being taken over by larger barred owls. And barred owls may wind up being much harder to remove from the landscape than threats like lead or DDT, which pushed the California Condor and Peregrine falcon to the brink.
The spotted owl is considered an indicator species -- a gauge of the health of the ecosystem that provides its habitat. The steady decline of this species signals the demise of other species, such as elk and flying squirrel, that inhabit these forests, and the disruption of the productive forces of nature that sustain human life.
It’s a wrenching decision that splits wildlife biologists and environmentalists. Killing one native animal to benefit another — especially a “big, beautiful raptor, a fantastic bird,” as one biologist puts it — is such a leap that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired an environmental ethicist to guide its discussions.
Read the Ethics and the Spotted Owl Controversy Article
There are fewer than 100 pairs of Northern spotted owls in British Columbia, Canada, 1,200 pairs in Oregon, 560 pairs in northern California and 500 pairs in the state of Washington.