Love in the Time of Extinction: How a bad bird saved a good place
We met secretly in the forest, at dusk. As I walked, I tried to quiet my steps through the soft duff to our rendezvous. I waited for his deep voice from the shadows. Twilight was when he came alive.
There. I finally heard the call that signaled we had found each other. I drew closer to the tree where I knew I’d finally see him again, my illicit immigrant beloved.
His soft brown eyes locked on mine. I took in his round face, the sleek contours of his muscular body. Yes, I knew he was a murderer; his name had been splashed all over the newspapers. Yes, I knew that his people were conquerors in my land. With their aggressiveness, their intelligence, and their raw strength, they had vanquished many of our natives, whose loss I mourned. I had even seen the evidence in a photo that was blurry but still unmistakable: his deceased target still held in his grip. Those sharp nails belonged to the one I held in my heart whose name I dared not disclose to any but my closest allies, for fear of outrage and ridicule: a Barred Owl.
He was a small fuzzy-faced owlet when we first met. Our Cupid was Melanie, one of the forest friends whom I often encountered in the large Seattle park next to my house. It takes time for birders to trust each other to be careful about nests, but Melanie and I had now swapped sightings for a couple of years. She’d first told me about the owlet when she found him fallen from his nest tree, and we laughed together when she told me how our city Parks and Recreation staff had dramatically brought in a cherry-picker and construction workers to build a stable platform home for the baby. We named the little owl “Wollet,” after Christopher Robin’s owl friend, Wol.
I wasn’t the only one fascinated by this young predator in the urban park. That summer, our neighborhood news source, West Seattle Blog, featured picture after picture of the growing Barred Owlet, and he developed a devoted following. Together we watched him walk, wobbly, along high branches, then flap awkwardly from tree to tree, all under the supervision of his parents. On trails through the park’s forest, walkers asked each other if they’d seen the owlet recently. People showed me their cellphones with my photo of him, published in the West Seattle Blog, as their wallpaper. A community was falling in love with the baby owl as I had.
When I grew worried about little Wollet’s health after seeing him gnaw on a tree branch, my library research didn’t yield useful information. I asked Johnny, another forest friend who was a well-respected local naturalist, whether he thought the owlet’s behavior was cause for concern. He practically spit at my feet.
“I hate Barred Owls. I don’t care if it dies; in fact, native birds would be a lot better off if it did. You should know that.”
It, he had said.
I sputtered in response, and we went our separate ways in the woods. As I walked away, Johnny called, “I have a photo to send you. Then you’ll understand.”
The photo showed Wollet chewing on the last remains of one of our uncommon little Western Screech-owls. I winced and closed the message.
It wasn’t long after I’d moved to Seattle from North Carolina that I began hearing about Barred Owls and their possible threats to the Northern Spotted Owl of deep Pacific Northwest forests, a species now on the precipice of extinction. As I got to know Washington, my route to camping spots took me through logging communities that were furious at having their livelihoods regulated to help the Spotted Owl. They were happy to have a species besides humans to blame.
Digging further into Barred Owls’ story, I learned that although they were native to the East Coast, they’ve been hopscotching across the continent for the past century. They’ve found roosts in the trees we helpfully planted across former grasslands, and fed on abundant prey in our Midwestern farms and grain silos. Now they’re in my back yard here in the Pacific Northwest.
Knowing how badly clear-cutting by those logging communities had hurt Spotted Owl habitats, I tried hard to convince myself that the Spotted Owl’s demise wasn’t really my beloved Barred Owls’ fault. But ultimately, searching through the studies, I’ve had to admit that yes, Barred Owls have really done some widespread damage to those who were here first. Protecting Spotted Owl habitat doesn’t keep their numbers from declining if there are Barred Owls around. But (I read squeamishly) when you remove Barred Owls from a place—that is, shoot them—Spotted Owls move right back in. Even in more settled places, Barred Owls hunt native owls.
Like other occupiers, Barred Owls are bold and aggressive. They’re willing to eat many types of food. And they’re tolerant of the humans who already live in the occupied territory—which is why I’d been able to get to know the owlet and his family. All this means that Barred Owls have a bad rap in the nature-loving community. Smithsonian calls them “bigger, meaner…murderous.” Popular magazines heap it on. This “neighborhood bully” (Slate) attacks other owls with “body slams” (Newsweek).
Even people who I thought would have a soft spot for all birds—like the President and Chief Scientist of the GEOS Institute, and Conservation Northwest’s Science and Conservation Director—don’t like them. One called my owls “the new bully on the block.” To the other, they were just weeds with feathers: “I don’t see the barred owl as much different [from] Himalayan blackberry or other domineering species that are impacting our landscape.” An editor at a top nature magazine told me he couldn’t publish a story presenting the Barred Owl in a positive light: “Our readers would be furious.” So it’s not surprising that I grew shy about confessing my affection for the invader in my park.
On a kayak-camping trip years ago, through the archipelago east of Vancouver Island, I drew my boat up the cobbled beach of tiny Village Island. Its ancient, dense forest had been wrought from thin glacial soil by my region’s famous winter rains. Making my way through salmonberry and salal, I came upon mossy logs and standing snags emanating a presence I couldn’t place. Finally, I realized that they were shaped. Generations ago, human hands from this abandoned village, Mamaliliculla, had carved faces and bodies into firm wood now decaying. I could barely make out large round eyes, a beak here and there: perhaps the features of the great totemic birds, overgrown and softened.
In Northwest Native traditions, Owl, hunter of the night, rules the darkness and can forecast weather; he sees what we cannot. The daytime ruler, Raven, has the gift of understanding how others see the world. With great, and often dark, humor, he manipulates others to his own ends—frequently while also bestowing upon them the gifts of fire and migrating salmon. Raven, the Trickster, is the moralist; Owl sees into souls.
I knew that Gyáa'aang, the sculpted cedar trunks that we call “totem poles,” were meant to decay, returning their totemic images to the earth. Still, my throat tightened with sadness as I contemplated the depth of artistry and symbolism being consumed by slugs and swordfern, disappearing silently into the hushed green forest.
Back on Vashon Island near my home, I spent an evening mesmerized as Vi Hilbert, a noted Lushootseed storyteller, related tribal tales full of Raven’s mischief on our Puget Sound shores. Ravens had long been familiar neighbors to her people. But by 1909, William Leon Dawson, while noting that ravens were “deeply embedded in the folklore” of local Native American groups, would report in his masterful two-volume Birds of Washington that the raven “is now nearly confined in its local distribution to the Olympic peninsula;[sic] and is nowhere common, save in the vicinity of the Indian villages which still cling to our western shore.”
Curious about the raven’s more recent history, I emailed the Seattle Audubon Society to find out whether they knew of any records of breeding ravens in Seattle. Toby Ross, Seattle Audubon’s science manager, contacted several other experts, who confirmed his own sense: there were no historic or contemporary records of raven nests in our city. Although I sometimes encountered ravens on my wilderness hikes, and very rarely glimpsed one on a quick flight over my neighborhood, I could only imagine, with envy, what it must have been like for the local Lushootseed people to hear the birds’ commanding voices ringing regularly through the trees.
I didn’t want to believe that our small native owls would share the fate of the living ravens, along with the totem poles that bore the powerful symbols of their faces. But I found myself wondering whether our time might call for new totemic figures—perhaps even an immigrant Barred Owl.
A couple of years later, my friend Melanie shared a secret. A big fir in her yard near the park was the favorite roosting site of one of those now-rare native Western Screech-owls. She’d named the owl Olivia. Melanie explained that Olivia would rest peacefully in the roost box even when she and her family were out in the yard. When anyone else came by, though, Olivia would lower herself and disappear inside the box. Olivia apparently could tell people apart, and knew who her people were.
I headed over to Melanie’s, walked quietly around the far side of her house, and tiptoed up the steps to her deck. Dozing under a heavy bough, Olivia looked like bark with eyes.
Contrary to their name, Screech-owls utter a soft, appealing series of toots in a bouncing-ball rhythm. In recent decades around the Seattle area, Screech-owl sightings have dropped; Barred Owl observations have risen. Screech-owls’ gentle toots have been replaced by the piercing who-COOKS-for-you call of the Barred Owl. Screech-owls were now so unusual in the city that I knew I’d better keep Olivia’s roosting site to myself. I didn’t want her scared off by a steady stream of birders trying to add a “lifer” to their checklists.
One April afternoon, I happened to drive past Melanie’s house on an errand. My heart sank. In front of her house was a big sign: For Sale.
Melanie’s was an unusual property in our urban setting. Its modest old cabin was set on a half-acre yard that sloped into a perennial wetland protected by the city. I knew that the unusual size of the property, and the pressures in Seattle to push more homes into existing residential areas, meant that there was a good chance that a developer would buy. He would demolish the old house and cut down Olivia’s tree as well as the beautiful large maples and Melanie’s apple and pear trees. He would then subdivide the lot and construct two or even three “skinny” houses. The developer would end up with a significant personal profit in the process, and consequently our city would lose yet another member of a dwindling species.
Could we save Olivia? I racked my brain for ideas. Could our local Audubon chapter be persuaded to buy the property as an environmental-education venue? Perhaps the city would acquire it as an extension of the existing wetland? What about our local university’s natural history museum; could they help? I spent hours on dead-end phone calls.
Then my partner Rob and I started thinking. Melanie’s yard was big enough for Rob to raise his bees and plant a big garden. The cabin was cozily small and had a huge deck surrounded by tall trees and mature shrubs; with that kind of outdoor privacy, I could write happily for hours. And there was rare, special Olivia.
We sold our beloved house next to the big park and prepared to move into Olivia’s habitat, hoping she might eventually accept us as one of her people, her kin.
“Did you hear about that weird amusement-park ride that the Parks Department is trying to put into our forest?” Johnny asked me one morning in the park as we stood watching the eagles.
“Huh? No. What?” I asked.
A friend of Johnny’s had been notified by Parks about a commercial “canopy adventure” operation under development for the quiet park that enveloped us. None of our official community groups had been contacted, although Parks and the developer had been talking about the idea for almost a year. The company, which proposed taking nine acres of canopy to install “ziplines, tarzan swings, rope ladders, and other obstacles,” was directed toward our park by the Parks Department because of its 135 acres of wildlife-rich forest, meadow, and beach. Now they were finally, and quietly, letting individuals in our community know about the discussions.
“What??” I said. “A private, for-profit company setting up on publicly-owned land, which they will now restrict from the rest of us? Without any comment period or consideration of impact on birds and other wildlife? How can they do this?”
I contacted the West Seattle Blog editor-in-chief to see if she knew anything about this. Tracy Record is an award-winning investigative reporter who keeps a sharp eye out for policies and events affecting our 60,000-neighbor community. She had heard nothing.
Tracy dug into the proposal’s background and published an article the next day. In her interview, the Parks Department explained that severe budget stress had them looking for creative sources of much-needed revenue. In twenty-four hours, readers had posted almost 150 comments, almost all opposing the commercial project. Our neighborhood compiled email lists, organized a Facebook group, convened meetings.
I dove into action. I made a list of the sensitive bird species I’d documented in treed areas of the park. In addition to the resident Pileated Woodpeckers and Cooper’s Hawks, our forest is a summer home to vireos, warblers, and other migratory birds who were all legally protected. In our urban setting, these birds had enough trouble finding wooded, quiet areas to hunt, court, and raise their children. Now that the birds had found our park, I thought, how could we in good conscience disrupt their habitat by sending thousands of people screaming through the canopy?
Using my library’s scholarly databases, I pored through article after article about how birds make their way in the city. City chicks have it tough. Before human populations became such a large presence, bird parents thrived on vast spreads of prehistoric forest that provided cover and food for their families. Now all they have is fragmented “greenspaces.” Seattle’s median park size is less than three acres, and less than half of our parks’ land is covered in forest. In our hilly city, greenspaces often occupy narrow ravines between house-studded streets, leaving little protected interior space for birds. Complex natural areas with multiple layers of vegetation have become small spaces without water, or prey, or enough dense shrubbery to build a safe nursery for baby birds.
And their poor ears. I cower at the nonstop noise in my city, but as a human, I can escape inside my quiet home. Birds can’t. Various kinds of machines are on roads twenty-four hours a day, and their thrumming background noise penetrates deep into natural areas. Birds have to deal with bright lights at night, free-roaming cats, new parasites—and, they have to put up with us. With all of those urban challenges, it’s no wonder that the birds who have made it in the city are a tough bunch. Including Barred Owls.
A local community association hosted a discussion of the proposed canopy amusement project at its upcoming monthly meeting, twelve days after the news article had launched. They invited both Parks staff and local nature lovers to speak.
The community organization’s meetings were usually attended by about ten people. When I entered the meeting room that night, there were already approximately two hundred people there, along with reporters from citywide news media. By the time the meeting began, the auditorium was standing-room-only: filled with at least three hundred upset, angry citizens, two Parks representatives, plus one woebegone-looking emissary from the commercial zipline company.
After a welcome and introductions by the meeting organizers, I stood up and talked about what being in nature means to people.
“You know this intuitively,” I told the crowd, “but scientific studies have confirmed that a turn in a quiet park brings us home happier. Taking regular walks along the beach, we end up healthier than if we only work out in a gym.”
Even from an office or hospital window, a view of sky or just a single tree, I explained, improves our well-being: we heal faster and deal with stress better. With my photos of Wollet on the screen behind me, I told the crowd about all the bird species that depend on this forest and what the zipline development would do to them.
A young mother brought her two young children with her to the microphone. “All the kids take their bikes to the park and watch the baby eagle,” she said, her voice rich with passion. “The little kids want to go under the tree where the owl is nesting, and find owl pellets.”
“I’ve been here since 1960,” said a gray-haired man. “I’ve been watching birds here for decades. This isn’t the place for a noisy zipline.”
With each speaker, the roar of applause grew. Lines formed to use the microphone. A well-known nature writer called our park “a rare, rare urban forest that is a refuge for wildlife.” A middle-aged woman teared up as she spoke eloquently about “the wild animals—don’t do that to them. It’s so neat to see the eagles, the hawks….” Someone else was so upset about the proposal that she hadn’t been able to sleep. Speaker after speaker—elderly, teens, even small children who came up to the mike all by themselves—confirmed our love for birds, for coyotes, and other small mammals that inhabit the park, for quiet woods in our urban setting.
As the community meeting about the commercial zipline came to a close, the board chair invited the company’s representative to speak. He simply shook his head: no.
The next morning, a bold headline in the West Seattle Blog announced that the Parks Department had decided to abandon the zipline proposal. Not only would our park be protected, but no park in our city would be opened to this commercial development. And right underneath the headline: a large photo of Wollet, beginning to learn how to walk along the branches outside his nest. The Barred Owl had become the symbol of the forest community—for immigrant and native species alike.
If you’re a city dweller, look out your window. Even if the view is mostly filled with buildings, you can probably also find at least some plants and birds and other animals. Now mentally subtract the ones who didn’t live here before humans arrived. Not much left, is there?
And you’re one of almost five billion people who live in cities. For half the world’s population, urban invasive species have become most of what we know of wildness. Yet we’re told by scientists, by environmental leaders, by nature writers, by the popular press, that we must disdain them because of their immigrant status. How, then, can we possibly expect urban people to act to save homes for all wild animals? When we separate urban animals into “good” (native) and “bad” (immigrant) species, we remove ourselves one step further from the holistic intimacy for which we yearn. Should our affection for urban animals become the latest extinction? Such a love is what will provide us with the motivation to learn about urban nature and to preserve habitat—for all of us.
After the zipline victory, I asked Tracy about what role she thought the park’s animals had played in its salvation. She’d read all the comments, been at all the meetings, received the emails from neighbors.
“Knowledge of and familiarity with the park’s wildlife made a huge difference in how passionately the community fought to keep the amusement concession out of our park,” she said. “It wasn’t really about the trees, or the fragile plants on the forest floor, or even about locking away part of the park from daily-visitor access. What I heard the most was, ‘what effect will this have on the wildlife?’” People had rallied around the totem that was Wollet—and had won.
When Rob and I moved into our new home, our new next-door neighbors had proudly showed us the dense conifers beside their home where the local Barred Owl had started to hang out. Occasionally, as we sat on the deck enjoying the long summer dusks, we’d hear our other neighbor: Olivia’s toot-tooting emanated from the wetland woods below. Then the rainy fall and winter months kept us mostly inside, settled by the fireplace with our cats, and since I didn’t see the Screech-owl in her roosting box, I pictured her snuggled cozily inside a snag in the ravine.
When the clouds cleared the following spring, we began working on our new yard with visions of bountiful gardens. Our first priority was opening up future gardening space to light. I nervously avoided watching as Rob picked up his heavy chainsaw and climbed high into laurels: another invasive species. Gradually the dark mass turned into firewood. The old apples and pears heaved a deep green sigh of relief as newly abundant sunlight streamed down on their snaggly branches.
But where was Olivia? After those few calls the previous late summer, we hadn’t heard her. I listened from the deck in the springtime dusk, straining to hear a faint toot-toot-tootle-tootle-tootle. Nothing. But the neighbors’ Barred Owl seemed to be doing just fine, his resonant call reverberating through the neighborhood. Had he been responsible for Olivia’s disappearance?
Then it dawned on me. With a heavy heart, I realized that our removal of the thick dark laurels might well have fundamentally altered Olivia’s habitat. Our desire for a sunlit garden might have removed a safe roosting spot from which she could survey her turf for mice and voles. Had we forced her to flee in search of another home in our sparsely green city? Were we no better than the loggers taking down old-growth forests for their own benefit?
Early the following summer, I headed to Vermont for an environmental writing conference, and upon returning, I was eager to tell Rob how charged up I was to write. That night he sat me down and told me the news he’d been withholding the whole week of the conference: the night I’d left for Vermont, my favorite little cat, Gwen, my sweet and gentle companion, had escaped outside and had been killed. By the Barred Owl.
A few days later, I heard the Barred Owl calling and went out into the yard. I found the owl in a remaining thicket of laurels in the back corner of the yard, just above eye level. I held his gaze for several long moments: this murderer, this brutal killer.
Would I hate him now, after having loved Wollet and his parents? Could this be Wollet, grown and hunting successfully in his own new territory?
Looking into the deep brown eyes of the perpetrator, I couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I looked at his soft round face and thought, you have to eat too.
Shortly after losing my little cat Gwen to Wollet, or one of his extended family, I was wandering disconsolately through the park near the proposed zipline location. I’d caught a few raven sightings earlier in the spring, so my mood picked up a bit when I heard a deep QUORK ringing through the forest. That long-sacred voice reminded me that, like the totem poles, every sadness eventually softens to soil.
Then at the edge of my vision, a movement caught my attention. On a nearby low branch was a big, glossy black bird; slightly above him was another. They flopped awkwardly from one branch to the next.
Could it possibly be? Heart pounding, I raised my binoculars and saw the confirming yellow gape at the corners of their beaks. Yes: these were juvenile ravens. They must have just graduated from their nest—which meant it was nearby.
Raven, the Trickster, mischievous moralist, he who in Native tradition brought light and humans into the world: Raven had returned to the forest. A forest that would provide for his family and for raven generations to come. A forest freed from commercial development with the help of a “bad bully” Barred Owl.
This past winter, I drafted my story of invaders and victims, love and loss. I wrote about my sadness that the new members of our old ecosystem had required sacrifice of an innocent native, the little Screech-owl for whose sake we had moved our home. With the finished draft in hand, I got ready to leave for my weekly writing-group meeting. I knew they would protest; stories aren’t supposed to end on a sad note.
But suddenly the tale wasn’t over. As I stepped onto the front porch to head to the group, covering my head against the steady dripping from the dark cedars, I heard, quiet but unmistakable through the rain: toot-toot-tootle-tootle-tootle.
Then, from across the ravine, a reply.