by Brendan McGarry
– For The Capitol Hill Times -
If you told someone that you planned to visit a park late at night, they’d likely assume nefarious intent. The cover of night aids ill behaviors, and most of us have an inert mistrust of darkness. So what would a naturalist be doing skulking about in the bushes of a public park at night?
Owling, seeking out owls, is an uncomfortable practice, even by birding standards. One typically stands in the pitch black cold, listening for a vague hoot, screech or whistle. It’s easy to dream of overstuffed comforters when straining to hear, let alone glimpse, an owl. Yet many people have an unspoken attraction to these mysterious birds.
When it comes to owls use in imagery, they beat most other feathered contenders. There are many explanations for this fondness. Simplistic: the rare occasions that we see owls breeds affinity. Bizarre: we like them because their large heads remind us of babies. Whatever it may be, I, too, am among the ranks of owl enthusiasts.
There couldn’t be owls in Capitol Hill, could there? The Snowy Owl eating a gull on 11th and John that was rehabilitated and released in Volunteer Park might come to mind, but we all know that was a fluke. What about resident owls?
In the interest of possibly finding an owl within the confines of Capitol Hill, I found myself alone in a dark city park, with expensive birding apparatuses. This sounds like a recipe for a mugging, and while I was fairly certain that I was the only person currently sliding the muddy paths of Interlaken Park, I couldn’t purge paranoia. Thankfully, before I had a chance to wind myself into full-fledged hysteria over small noises, I heard a distant hooting. The mnemonic used to remember one species of owl’s call is a barking “who cooks for you, who cooks for you,” and this was a dead ringer. Forgetting all but one noise, I hooted back and quietly listened. I didn’t realize that I’d been holding my breath until I got an answer, this time closer. Maybe it was my imagination, but it sounded angry.
There are a surprising number of owl species in our city, but Barred Owls (Strix varia) are the clear winner for ubiquity. However, they haven’t always been here. Historically, the now-endangered Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) would have been obligated to mature forests down to the shores of the Puget Sound. As settlers moved in with ax and saw, so went the Spotted Owl. A century later, the Barred Owl arrived, all too happy to exploit new openings. The first record of a Barred Owl in Washington is in 1965.
Being closely related, Barred and Spotted Owls overlap in their ecological roles. While Barred Owls aren’t as deeply rooted to old-growth forests, they prefer them, and are less bothered by fragmented stands. As a more aggressive species, they displace Spotted Owls in areas that now overlap within their own territories. Tossing them into the fire of the Northern Spotted Owl Conservation, shooting Barred Owls has become a solution to alleviate stress on their endangered cousin.
People will easily vilify a species when it does something that humans see as problematic. Birders in the Seattle area remember a time when Western Screech Owls (a diminutive native species of owl) were relatively common. Now, there are scant places where they can be found, and Barred Owls may be partial culprits. Screech owls are perfect prey.
My nighttime sojourn wasn’t completely necessary. While Barred Owls are more active during the night, they are often seen in daylight, and, as a result, are more noticeable than other species. Their variable diet of other owls, rodents and even crayfish, as well as flexible habitat requirements, also explains why you can find them in most greenbelts in our city. Sure, issues surround their established presence in our region, but I find these big owls beautiful and captivating.
Despite intentions, my hooting refrain wasn’t a friendly hello, but the trumpet of an interloper during peak territoriality. This was the beginning of their breeding season, leaving birds particularly aggressive. I’ve read stories of people attacked by territorial owls, and have had enough personal close calls. I didn’t want to disturb the bird anymore (good birders follow ethical guidelines), and wanted to spare my scalp from razor-sharp talons, and turned to walk away, happy in the observation.
Owls are equipped with gossamer feathers for making mute descents on aurally attuned rodents. Just as I spun round to take one more look, a monstrous barking thundered from above, a testament to the owl’s stealthy abilities. Yes, Barred Owls are in the neighborhood, and likely in places besides Interlaken Park. However, unless you frequent parks at night (which is ill-advised) or get lucky during the day, you might not notice them. They’re around, though, feasting on ubiquitous rats and gliding on silent wings.