Spotted Owl Sanctuary

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Originally published as: Sanctuary in the Deep Woods
August 23, 1987
This World Section – San Francisco Chronicle


Six Rivers National Forest
Trinity County

Ann Chrisney hasn’t really lost this owl, but she isn’t exactly sure where it is, either. For three hours now, since just before dusk, we have been roaring over dirt roads in a Forest Service pickup, enormous trees flashing by at the margins of our headlights, deer and skunks and rabbits bounding ahead of us into the dark. A dozen times Ann has stopped the truck and climbed out with antenna, receiver and earphones to listen for the electronic bleeup , bleeup , bleeup , bleeup of owls in the night – a dark, ponytailed young woman in an orange forester’s vest stuffed with pens, pencils, rulers, a compass, an altimeter, a thermometer and other gear. At each stop, she holds the antenna aloft in one hand like the Statue of Liberty rigged for T V, while she adjusts the volume on the receiver with the other. Then, turning the antenna until the signal comes in just so, she sights down her arm over her compass toward a bird hidden somewhere in the dark woods beyond.

It takes at least three compass readings, each from a different location, to learn exactly where an owl is perched, and Ann has already located three birds tonight. But she isn’t sure about this owl, a female named Doll, who with her mate, Billy Bob, is raising a nest of young somewhere in their roughly 1,000-acre territory. Two of the compass readings on Doll’s signal place her at roughly the same spot. But this third and final reading is a problem. Either the owl has moved or the signal is being bounced around by some hill.

Ann sits in the truck and draws the compass headings in on the map, the light from her headlamp coming up off the page onto her strong face. After a moment, she scratches her upper lip with her pen, shakes her head and studies the map again. Two of the compass lines intersect, but the third is wandering off toward the east as if headed for Red Bluff. “I think she’s moved,” Ann says, “but we’d better get another reading to be sure.” Then she throws the truck into gear and we are off once more, our spinning wheels showering the road with gravel.


Before the night is over, Ann Chrisney will learn the locations of five northern spotted owls – each sewn into a transmitter like a little electronic backpack. Her research partner, Mike McMillian, will locate the other six radio-tagged birds in this 4-by-6-mile study area along the Mad and Van Duzen rivers. The two usually work alone, but tonight both are carrying passengers. McMillian is somewhere to the south in another truck with Nancy Tilghman, the biologist in charge of the owlproject, who is down from the Forest Service’s Redwood Sciences Lab in Arcata for a few days.

I met the researchers that afternoon at a green barracks, perched like an eagle’s aerie on a hill east of the Mad River ranger station on State Route 36. There, Nancy Tilghman showed me a giant map of the study area, with the nightly locations of each owl marked with colored pins. Green pins marked the spots for Billy Bob and Doll (named after friends of Ann Chrisney’s); red pins for Solo and Luna (who was captured under a full moon); and orange pins for Chelsea, whose mate Morris is so “finicky,” so difficult to tempt from the trees, that he has so far eluded capture altogether.

It is easy to see from the map that each pair of spotted owls has its own territory, barely overlapping with that of its neighbors. The purpose of this research is to discover how big that territory needs to be. Ann and Mike started capturing owls and fitting them with transmitters in May and will continue monitoring the birds for a year. The study is being conducted by the research branch of the U.S. Forest Service (an independent entity that advises the agency on wildlife and resource-development issues) and partially funded by a 1986 congressional act that tagged the spotted owl for special attention.

While researchers have been studying spotted owls for at least 15 years, all of a sudden everyone is curious about these birds – loggers, legislators, environmentalists, and natural resource administrators in particular. Spotted owls can flourish only in the dense old-growth forests of the West – forests that may be gone (except for parks and other reserved lands) within the next 15 or 20 years should the present rate of cutting continue.

No one knows exactly why the birds need old-growth, Nancy Tilghman says. The deep woods may protect them from predators, such as goshawks and great horned owls, or the cool of the forest may be important summer shelter for the heavily feathered birds. Perhaps the spotted owl is simply too rigid a feeder, too tied to the wood rat, its primary prey, to adjust to living in other environments.


But for whatever reason, wherever forests are cleared, spotted owls seem to disappear, replaced by barred owls, competing species of the forest edges. As the top predator, the spotted owl is also a good measure of health in the old-growth ecosystem, Ann Chrisney says. “If the owl can survive, its prey must be surviving, and if the owl’s prey is surviving then its prey must be surviving, and so forth down the chain.”

So the spotted owl has emerged as a symbol, as a flagbearer for other creatures – including many humans – who are nourished by the deep woods. Its dappled plumage and wide-eyed stare have appeared on T-shirts and posters, and in July on the cover of the Sierra Club’s monthly magazine. The bird has flown out of the timber and into the middle of a raging battle over old-growth forests. While many lumbermen see old-growth as “over-mature timber” – trees going to waste when they could be building homes and income – environmentalists believe that the remaining old-growth forests are biological treasure houses, providing shelter for an immense variety of life.

In the middle is the Forest Service, which as primary custodian of the marketable old-growth (most private patches were chopped down and reseeded in single-species “tree plantations” years ago), is charged by law to balance use with preservation – with seeing that timber gets sold while biological diversity remains intact.

As part of its responsibility, Nancy Tilghman says, the Forest Service cannot “knowingly let any creature become extinct.” And while the spotted owl is not yet on the endangered species list of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is on the Forest Service’s “sensitive species list” for this region. Nobody knows how many owls are left (estimates range from 2,000 to 4,000 birds) or how many acres a pair of birds needs to thrive and reproduce.

In Oregon and Washington, the Forest Service has decided 2,200 acres will do the trick. Spotted Owl Habitat Areas (SOHAs) in California are currently 1,000 acres. (There are currently 48 such areas in Six Rivers National Forest.) Nancy Tilghman and her team, along with other Forest Service and independent researchers, are trying to find out if this is enough habitat, or too much, and exactly how the birds use the land. When the scientists have finished their work, the hard questions will be left unanswered. After we know how much land is needed for a pair of owls, we must decide how many owls we wish to save, how many SOHAs should be scattered across the California landscape.

Just before 9 a.m. the next morning, Ann, Mike, Nancy and I, along with a forester named Joe Niesen, drive up a woods road above the Van Duzen River and hike down a steep slope of old-growth timber. A pair of biologists from Humboldt State University have been working in this area, capturing and ear-tagging wood rats as part of the owl research. Last week, they had just released a tagged rat when an owl swooped down and tried to pick it off the forest floor. On the big pin map back at the Forest Service barracks, this area is blank between two masses of different-colored pins, leading Nancy Tilghman to believe that there’s a pair of unmonitored owls here, and she has decided to add the birds to the study.


Joe Niesen has come along because after a lifetime in the woods (he was raised up in Gasquet in the heart of the coast ranges) he has yet to see one of these owls up close. He is a solidly built, reserved, country-looking man, and as we walk down the hill, he checks out the timber and gives me a report.

“Oh, it’s never been logged,” he says, “and it’s probably over 100 years old.” There are stout Douglas firs rising to form a broad canopy overhead, and fat red madrones, shedding their papery bark, a brighter red showing from underneath like new skin through a healing burn. Yesterday’s drizzle has pulled back to sea, and the sun casts a leafy design on the forest floor.

Like all animals of vaguely human appearance (vaulted forehead, large limpid eyes) owls are often thought of as “cute” and somehow more intelligent than their fellow creatures. In fact, owls are cunning predators and would look as fierce as eagles if they did not need large eyes and giant internal ear structures to hunt at night. Spotted owls are also naive and trusting where humans are concerned, and, finicky Morris notwithstanding, they are easily captured.

A hundred yards down the hill, Mike McMillian stops, signals for our silence and lifts his head to hoot. “Whoo-whoo-hoo-hooo ,” he hoots, imitating a call characterized by one writer as having “the full-throated explosive effect of a baying hound.”

In the business, this is called hooting up an owl, and is particularly effective in the spring, when nesting birds are most sensitive to the possible intrusion of other owls on the territory. (Contacting owls in this way is not always a benign exercise. Ann remembers a day last year in the Sierra when a nesting owl swooped down onto a biologist attempting to locate it using a contact whistle, another variety of call. The dive-bombing bird pulled up short of impact, but the biologist hit the ground rolling, nonetheless.)

“Whoo-whoo-hoo-hooo ,” Mike goes again, as we continue to move slowly downhill. On the third try, Mike’s hooting is angrily answered from the trees, and we chase after the sound until we find the protesting bird on the low branch of a big fir. The owl is a dark dappled brown, liberally splattered with white. “It’s the female,” Mike says. “Boy, is she upset.”

Now it is all a matter of temptation and curiosity. Working quickly, Ann opens a small tube-like cage and extracts a mouse, fastening a line to its tail with a metal clip. While she is doing this, Mike is readying the capture pole: a workman’s painting pole, about 5 feet long, fitted with weed-chopper line, with a loop-holder on one end and a fishing reel on the other.


Owl-fishing is a two-person operation. Ann lets the bait scamper through the leaves at the end of her line, while Mike stands by, ready to slip a noose over the owl should it come within range. The owl seems oblivious to danger (after all, it has never dealt with these large, colorful creatures before), and she quickly locks her great eyes on the mouse. She comes down in stages, perhaps wondering why her quarry isn’t making more headway through the leaves, to a lower branch on the fir, and then to a sapling barely 10 feet above Ann’s head.

Mike brushes the bird once with the noose and misses, barely breaking the owl’s concentration on the bewildered mouse. The second time, he has her, and Ann rushes to get a firm hold on the bird, while the laconic forester, Joe Niesen, pronounces the moral of the drama: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

The information that must be collected on this owl (from now on, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band number 1387-06325) fills two full pages of 9-point type in the black record book that Nancy Tilghman cradles in her lap as she sits on the forest floor. Joe Niesen gets to hold the bird – an honor he approaches more cautiously than the owl had approached the mouse – while Ann and Mike dictate the data, including the bird’s weight, tail length, bill depth, bill length, number of tail bar s, condition of the tail feathers, and body plumage type.

They work quickly, in the shade, to prevent undo stress to the bird, wrapping the bird’s scimitar-like talons with sticky gauze to prevent undo stress to themselves. Their tools – including scale, rulers, calipers, needles, thread and surgical forceps – are laid out on the forest floor in a brown cloth case.

Ann gets to sew the bird into the little harness that holds the transmitter on its back. (“Sewing and cleanup are always the women’s jobs,” she says half-jokingly.) As she works, she talks to the bird in silky tones, calling it “pretty baby” and blowing gently on its head. Before releasing the owl, Joe Niesen proposes that it be named Media in honor of my presence. And then the bird flies back to the trees, backpacked, banded and a little bewildered, transmitting a signal that in some small way may dictate the future of her species.

Early this month, 26 environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the northern spotted owl to the endangered-species list and to outlaw logging of the bird’s old-growth habitat. The Forest Service is not adequately protecting the owl, the groups suggested. The petition can be seen as either an early shot in the battle to save the owl or but the latest volley in a nearly century-old battle to preserve the old-growth timber. But one thing is for certain. The spotted owl’s inscrutable visage is going to be more and more with us: The bird is too powerful and convenient a symbol for it to be otherwise.

William Poole, a San Francisco writer, writes his Detours column from somewhere on the road weekly in This World.

Text and photos ©2018 William Poole