JWM study: Where do California spotted owls forage?

By Dana Kobilinsky

An adult California spotted owl and owlet in a nest. ©Sheila Whitmore

California spotted owls have been declining for two decades — largely due to habitat loss from logging. In addition, a warming climate has brought with it more severe droughts and fires across the owls’ range, which extends from the Sierra Nevada to the mountains of southern California.

In an effort to better understand the impact of these forest fires on the subspecies, Monica Bond, principal scientist at the Wild Nature Institute — an organization that studies at-risk species — and long-time member of The Wildlife Society, and her colleagues recently examined the types of habitat that the owls tend to choose for foraging. They published their findings in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

As part of the study, the team collected data from eight radio-tagged California spotted owls (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) a few years after the 2007 Slide Fire, which burned through over 12,000 acres of forest in southern California. They examined the severity of these fires across hardwood, conifer and mixed forests as well as where the owls chose to forage. Bond and her colleagues found that the owls foraged in low and high-severity burned forests depending on their availability as well as moderate-severity burns — which reinforced a similar finding in the Sierra Nevada. “This is not surprising given the long evolutionary history spotted owls have with mixed-severity fire,” she said.

While many people assume wildfires are a threat to the owl subspecies, Bond says most studies have documented that mixed-severity fires don’t significantly impact owl populations.

As a result, “We recommend that burned forest should be considered suitable foraging habitat for spotted owls,” she said. In addition, Bond recommends managers protect riparian areas, which, she says, are especially critical for foraging owls in southern California.

“The relationship between old forest species and wildfire is a fascinating topic and there is so much to learn,” Bond said. “I definitely plan to keep investigating.”

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

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