A northern spotted owl in the old growth forest of Oregon
Todd Sonflieth / OPB

science environment

Last Call: Tracking The Sound Of The Spotted Owl’s Extinction

By Ian McCluskey (OPB)
June 20, 2020 1 p.m.

The spotted owl changed the fate of Northwest forests in the summer of 1990. Thirty years later, what hope, if any, do biologists hold for the fate of the spotted owl?

In the summer of 1990, I found myself deep in the Mount Hood National Forest on a search for a small brown owl dappled with white spots.

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I was a high school student, working my summer break in exchange for room and board, trying to gain a little professional experience and hoping for an adventure.

With me was a college biology student who had come from Oklahoma for a seasonal position as a wildlife technician.

“This is the Oregon I’d always dreamed of,” he said, as we looked out across a vast checkerboard of clear-cuts and dense old-growth forest.

As twilight silhouetted the mountain and the first stars appeared, it was time to start. My research teammate, Paul, cupped his hands to his mouth and belted out his best owl call: one hoot, followed by two quick hoots, and then a final trailing hoot. "Hoot…who-who…hoooo."

The last note rolled out over the vast ridgelines and canyons of the forest.

Then, from the pitch blackness of trees, came the reply. Low, distant, but clear: "Hoot…who-who…hoooo."

It was the first time I heard the call of a northern spotted owl.

Paul cupped his hands again, but as soon as he belted the first “Hoo”— a shotgun blast rang out.

Buckshot whined overhead, clipping the boughs, raining splinters of wood and fir needles on us.

Related: Big Money Bought Oregon's Forests. Small Timber Communities Are Paying The Price.

“Hey!” Paul yelled to whoever shot at us, then turned to me. “We should probably get out of here.”

For as long as forests had blanketed the coastal edge of the Pacific Northwest, the northern spotted owl had lived within them, quietly and anonymously; but that pivotal summer, the small bird was suddenly the unlikely symbol at the center of a social, political, economic and ecological controversy known as the Timber Wars. It was a transitional historic moment marked by protests, lawsuits and even sabotage that reshaped the Northwest timber industry and environmental policy and thrust the spotted owl into the national spotlight.

It's been 30 years this June since the spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act and made the cover of Time magazine. Today, the quiet little owl has slipped out of the national spotlight, back to its relative obscurity in the dense pockets of ancient old growth.

Often, I think back to the summer of 1990. I wonder if crews still go out at night and hoot. And if spotted owls still hoot back.

Out of nowhere

If there was a trail here last summer, the forest has reclaimed it. We bushwack through vine maple, salal, sword fern and devil’s club. We crawl under fallen logs. Boots slip on the downhill, and we tug our way uphill by grabbing onto tree roots.

The mountains of the Coast Range aren’t high in elevation, but they are steep in pitch. They have been carved by some 30 million rainy winters.

Above the towering treetops, the summer air is sweltering, but in the dense understory, the soil is damp and cool. A Pacific giant salamander scurries from a rotting log as we pass.

Many of the thick trunks of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and hemlock are singed with tell-tale signs of forest fires over centuries. They have stood here longer than America has been a country.

We arrive at a colossal tree — so tall that its tip has toppled, leaving a broken crown. Just right for an owl nest.

Chris McCafferty, crew leader of spotted owl researchers in the Oregon Coast Range, found a nesting pair of spotted owls in this tree last season. Now, he hopes, they’ve returned.

Keeping track of nesting sites has been going on in this forest for decades, and McCafferty is excited to share this possibly active site with Eric Forsman, a U.S. Forest Service researcher emeritus, who helped pioneer the study of spotted owls, and Damon Lesmeister, Forsman’s successor, who leads the spotted owl work out of the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station based on the campus of Oregon State University.

Wildlife biologists Eric Forsman, left, and Damon Lesmeister represent two generations of spotted owl researchers.

Wildlife biologists Eric Forsman, left, and Damon Lesmeister represent two generations of spotted owl researchers.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Puckering his lips, Forsman makes a high-pitched sound like a mouse. He pauses, scans. Squeaks again.

Lesmeister scrambles up a steep bank to get a better vantage. He points and whispers, "there.”

All of a sudden a spotted owl silently swoops in and lands on a branch above us.

“They just appear out of nowhere,” Lesmeister says. “And it takes you about one minute to develop a real passion for these birds.”

“To me, they are kind of the spirit of the old forest,” Forsman says. “They’re this mysterious animal, and once I saw one, I was hooked.”

The curious bird

Forsman saw a spotted owl for the first time more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1960s, Forsman was a student at Oregon State University and had a summer job with the Forest Service. While at the Box Canyon Guard Station in the Willamette National Forest, Forsman heard an unusual sound — almost like an odd bark, he thought.

He had grown up on farmlands outside of Eugene so he was familiar with the sound of dogs barking in the country. He also knew the calls of barn owls and great horned owls. But this was a sound he hadn’t heard before.

Forsman knew that owls hoot to communicate with other owls — especially if another owl encroaches on their territory — so he tried to mimic the barking call.

When a hoot came back in reply, Forsman got excited.

But he was surprised when suddenly the owl swooped to a nearby tree limb as if summoned.

The small brown owl with dappled spots did not seem afraid of him. If anything, it seemed curious to see who had come visit.

Forsman stared in amazement, and the owl stared back with large dark eyes. “They're actually kind of a real dark brown when you get close,” Forsman says, “but at any distance beyond a few feet they look black.”

Related: Spotted Owls Still Losing Ground In Northwest Forests

Staring into the dark eyes of a spotted owl for the first time, Forsman was transfixed. “I wanted to learn more. I wanted to see more.”

Forsman dedicated his graduate work to studying northern spotted owls. “At that point in time no one had done any work on them in Oregon,” Forsman says. “We didn’t know how they were distributed across the state, we didn’t know what type of nest they used, we didn’t really know what they ate. We didn’t know pretty much anything. So everything we learned was new.”

Forsman searched the forests of western Oregon for spotted owls. He began to locate the owls and their nests and set up study sites from the California border to the Columbia River.

The more Forsman returned to his study sites, the more he began to see trees tagged with blue spray paint, marking an upcoming timber sale. “So it became apparent pretty early on,” he said, “that there might be a problem in terms of spotted owl habitat and logging not being exactly compatible.”

1973 was a watershed year for Forsman — metaphorically and literally. As he was doing his graduate studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, he learned of timber sales slated within the city’s watershed. In addition to the municipal source of drinking water, Forsman knew the 10,000-acre forest was also home to spotted owls.

From a distance, the brown eyes of a spotted owl appear black.

From a distance, the brown eyes of a spotted owl appear black.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Forsman went to the Corvallis City Council to advocate for the spotted owls. “I don’t think I was very diplomatic,” he says with a chuckle.

1973 also saw the passage of the Endangered Species Act.

But no one — not even Forsman — could not have imagined how the small bird that lived deep in ancient Pacific Northwest forests and the new act of Congress would intersect 17 years later in the pivotal turning point of the Timber Wars.

When timber was king

Like the legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyon, my research teammate Paul was a burly guy with a thick black beard. He wore black smoke-jumper boots, forest-green wool whipcord pants and a T-shirt that showed a cartoon of a spotted owl and a little spotted owl standing in front of a statue of a logger. The caption read: “Look, Son, the woods used to be full of them.”

“Isn’t this great?” said Paul. “They just started selling them at the Zigzag store.”

I couldn’t tell if Paul wore it in solidarity with loggers. Or if he found it ironic to wear as a Forest Service owl counter.

Before heading out for our evening shift, we’d sit on the front steps of the 1930s cabin we lived in at the Zigzag Ranger Station, treating our leather boots with beeswax, waiting for dusk. We watched logging trucks barreling down from the mountain, loaded with fresh logs.

Lumbermen pose by a Sitka spruce cut in the old growth forests of Oregon's Coast Range.

Lumbermen pose by a Sitka spruce cut in the old growth forests of Oregon's Coast Range.

Courtesy of the State Library of Oregon

Most carried logs the size I’d grown up seeing: thick Doug firs, each around 100 years old, the second-growth cut following the original logging of the late 1800s. Some loads would have three or four giant logs — as wide across as out-stretched arms. Then, every once in a while, a truck would come down with a single massive log. It was a sight I’d previously seen only in old photos and postcards from the bonanza days of logging.

Driven by the post-war demand for new houses, and accelerated by advances in machinery, logging enjoyed decades of prosperity. In Oregon, the saying went, “timber was king.”

But in the early 1980s, a national recession and a stalled housing market hit Oregon’s timber-dependent small towns especially hard. Many mills shut down and, in some of the coastal timber towns, unemployment rates swelled to 25%. As the decade wore on, so too did harvest levels, in what looked like a return to the boom decades.

The race is on

By the late 1980s, between 3% and 7% of old-growth remained in the region’s 56.8 million acres of forest. In a mosaic of clear-cuts and second-growth timber, these remnants of the original forest contained the largest trees — clear, vertical grain that commanded top dollar — making them the most economically valuable acres. They were also the most ecologically valuable, conservationists countered. They began to challenge timber sales of old-growth in national forests.

By the late 1980s, between 3% and 7% of old growth remained in the region’s 56.8 million acres of forest in a mosaic of clearcuts and second-growth timber.

By the late 1980s, between 3% and 7% of old growth remained in the region’s 56.8 million acres of forest in a mosaic of clearcuts and second-growth timber.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Logging crews would sometimes arrive on a site to find that protesters had pushed cars into a barricade and chained themselves to road-gates. The loggers would have to wait for the sheriff to be called, the chains to be cut and cars to be towed.

As long as the timber sales followed the rules, the protesters had little legal standing. They looked to environmental laws.

Related: Old-Growth Forests Can Provide Last Refuge For Declining Songbirds As Climate Changes

The Endangered Species Act was seen as a potential means to their end, if a wildlife species could be found that both depended upon the old growth to survive, as well as met the qualifications to be considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be threatened or endangered. Suddenly, attention turned to the northern spotted owl.

As Forsman’s work had documented, the spotted owl lived in and depended upon old-growth forests for its habitat. If it could be documented that the reclusive bird’s populations had declined to a critical point to qualify for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, then getting the spotted owl listed could create the legal leverage to halt logging of old-growth.

The spotted owl became the unexpected symbol at the center of the Timber Wars. Protesters donned owl costumes and chanted “no more clear-cuts!” In turn, bumper stickers in mill towns read: “Save a logger, eat an owl.”

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In the national forests of the Northwest, the two critical questions became: where, exactly, are the spotted owls, and how many are there? Wildlife survey crews were quickly assembled and taught how to hoot.

So I found myself starting my summer at the Zigzag Ranger Station, each evening waiting for dusk to begin our shift, watching logging trucks barrel down the road, freighted with the last load of the day — a sign that a blitz was on to get as many timber sales completed before things got shut down.

Into the spotlight

On June 23, 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Related: So Far, Northwest Forest Plan Falling Short Of Biodiversity Goals

The next spring, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer issued an injunction, halting new timber sales on 24 million acres on 17 national forests in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, until a definitive plan could be made.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and members of the cabinet held an unprecedented summit in Portland.

The resulting Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 significantly reduced the logging of old-growth forests on federal lands, but promised an ongoing harvest to sustain the timber-dependent economies of the region. Harvest levels dropped to between 15–25% of pre-1990 levels, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

With 80% of the remaining old-growth preserved for habitat under the plan, biologists like Forsman hoped that populations of the spotted owls would stabilize and, with time, even begin to recover.

Arrival of an aggressor

When I hooted for spotted owls in 1990, I had never heard of a barred owl. Yet, a few Forest Service crews reported sightings of this owl during their surveys that summer — which was odd.

Although larger in size, barred owls look fairly similar to spotted owls, with dark brown eyes and dappled feathers the color of bark. Rather than spots, their light coloring marks are like dashes, or bars, giving them their common name. They’re related to spotted owls (both from the genus Strix), but here's what was confusing to bird biologists: no one expected to see them in the forests of Oregon. They were native to the eastern side of North America.

Barred owls from the east have moved in and taken over spotted owl habitat in the western forests of Oregon, and are now pushing spotted owls closer and closer to extinction.

Barred owls from the east have moved in and taken over spotted owl habitat in the western forests of Oregon, and are now pushing spotted owls closer and closer to extinction.

Nick Fisher / OPB

Related: How Barred Owls Win The Fight For Forest and Food

Survey data revealed something else unexpected: barred owls had claimed approximately 2% of the spotted owls’ nesting sites.

At first, biologists could only speculate on why barred owls came from the east to Oregon. “To anyone with any biological training, it was very concerning," Forsman said. “Biologists were talking among themselves, but didn’t know how it would play out."

But as the '90s progressed, the results started to be seen: barred owls swooped in and claimed prime spotted owl nest sites as their own, competed for food, and harassed, and even killed, the native spotted owls.

“By 2000, the level of impact was really marked,” Lesmeister says. By 2010, it had become clear: the biggest threat to spotted owls was the arrival of barred owls.

“When we first started doing spotted owl research, 50 years ago now, there were no barred owls in these forests,” says Forsman. “Now they're virtually everywhere.”

Sounds of silence

Three decades after my high school summer in Mount Hood National Forest, I once again find myself bouncing in a Forest Service vehicle down a narrow two-track road in search of spotted owls, but this time as a documentary producer for OPB.

We’re in the Siuslaw National Forest, southwest of Corvallis. Dusk is falling, and the forest fills with shadows.

As the road rises and twists deeper into the forest, spur roads split off and dead-end at former logging landings where heavy equipment once skidded cut trees and loaded logs onto trucks. Now, these landings are mostly overgrown by brush.

We park at the end of one and biological science technician Alaina Thomas gets out to start her nightly routine. This is her fifth season calling for spotted owls.

Related: Half Mystery, Half Magic: In Search Of Great Grey Owls

She flips a switch on a small hand-held speaker. A pre-recorded hoot comes out. Although the audio has the hollow quality of a voice on a cell phone, the notes are familiar: Hoot…who-who…hoooo.

The sound rolls out into the darkness. Thomas waits, a pen and clipboard in hand.

She listens.

After a set amount of time, she pushes the button on the speaker again.

She waits.

When Thomas started five years ago, she’d hear spotted owls. “It’s pretty discouraging,” she says. “It’s kind of daunting to go out day after day, week after week, and not hear anything.”

Biological science technician Alaina Thomas during a night survey, listening for the hoot of a spotted owl.

Biological science technician Alaina Thomas during a night survey, listening for the hoot of a spotted owl.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

She shines her flashlight in the boughs, scanning to see if a spotted owl has stealthily swooped in to investigate our presence. But the flashlight reveals only empty boughs.

We wait longer.

Thomas hears a distant hoot. But it is not a spotted owl. It’s the single descending note of a barred owl.

Eavesdropping on the forest

Damon Lesmeister has taken up the work pioneered by Forsman. But the techniques that served the first generation of spotted owl researchers are becoming increasingly limited as spotted owl populations decline.

Locations that had once been consistent nesting sites are empty, and it takes crews longer to locate active sites. And researchers are increasingly sparing in using the very technique that was the first and most fundamental in studying spotted owls: calling.

If a researcher calls, and a spotted owl hoots in response, it reveals its location — not only to the biologist, but potentially to a nearby barred owl.

So Lesmeister has had to seek new methods.

He’s exploring an emerging field called bioacoustics. His field researchers take portable digital audio recorders into the forest. For the past 50 years, spotted owl researchers used calling to locate owls, and would then hike to find, snare and band them, to identify individual birds — a “hands-on” technique common in wildlife biology, Lesmeister explains.

“But bioacoustics is essentially ‘hands-off’ — it’s a passive way to gather data and it minimizes our interference with the owls and our footprint in the forest,” he says. “It's sort of next-generation natural history.”

The recorders are set for four-hour blocks at dusk and dawn, collecting approximately 350 hours of audio at each study site. “It would be very unlikely for something that lives here that makes noise not to make a noise in that time,” says Leila Duchac, a graduate student researcher at Oregon State University as she straps a recorder to a tree with a bungee cord.

“It would be very unlikely for something that lives here that makes noise not to make a noise in that time,” says Leila Duchac, a graduate student researcher at Oregon State University, about the use of digital recorders in the forest.

“It would be very unlikely for something that lives here that makes noise not to make a noise in that time,” says Leila Duchac, a graduate student researcher at Oregon State University, about the use of digital recorders in the forest.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Lesmeister's team can collect more data from the forest than ever before. In fact, it is the largest bioacoustics study occurring in the United States, he says. Since deploying their recorders in 2017, they have now gathered over a million hours of audio.

If Lesmeister hired one of his graduate students to listen to the recordings in real-time, for eight hours a day, five days a week, they wouldn’t be able to get through them all in a lifetime. In fact, it’d take about 520 years — a lifespan closer to that of an old-growth Douglas fir.

So they make use of the supercomputer at Oregon State University. Inside a room of humming server towers, the data gets crunched at lightning speed. The computer analyzes the sounds and suggests which ones might be the call of a spotted owl.

Back at the lab, research assistant Zach Ruff has to confirm which ones are indeed spotted owls.

Related: How Oregon Rivers Carried Millions Of Trees

“How many spotted owl confirmations do you have at this site?” asks Lesmeister, as he pulls a stool up next to Ruff.

“Like a dozen,” says Ruff, and loads the next file to confirm.

They are not just simply labeling spotted owl calls, but using the latest artificial intelligence technology. They train what they call a "neural network" to process the millions of forest noises and interpret which are actually the calls of spotted owls.

The neural network has guessed some spotted owl hoots correctly, but another track is a beep-beep-beep mechanical sound.

“That’s a yarder,” Lesmeister says and chuckles. Somewhat ironically, the computer mistakes the sound of logging for the sound of spotted owls.

Slowly but surely, the data processing becomes faster and more accurate.

Using artificial-intelligence technology and Oregon State University's super computer, Damon Lesmeister and research assistant Zach Ruff train their computer to process millions of forest noises and to interpret which are actually the calls of spotted owls.

Using artificial-intelligence technology and Oregon State University's super computer, Damon Lesmeister and research assistant Zach Ruff train their computer to process millions of forest noises and to interpret which are actually the calls of spotted owls.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Final call

Ruff pulls up another file. In it, we can hear two owls, calling and responding. Lesmeister can tell immediately that it is a mated pair, directly communicating with each other.

“Once they become mated, they stay mated for life,” he says, “and that’s breeding language.”

They’ve discovered that spotted owls have at least 13 different call types and can inflect their pitch. “We’re learning there is nuanced communication,” Lesmeister says with enthusiasm. “Just through the sound recordings, we can learn these complex interactions and their complex language.”

“It’s much more than just hoots in the forest,” Lesmeister says, excited at the potential. “There’s much more we can learn about spotted owls as an individual species, but also what we can learn about the place they live.”

The growing library of recordings is creating new baseline data. Years from now, other biologists could scan the recordings to identify other species and get a better understanding of the old-growth forest biodiversity over time.

Lesmeister is stepping into spotted owl research at an exciting time, when the potential for new digital technology seems limitless.

The northern spotted owl is on a slow but steady course toward extinction.

The northern spotted owl is on a slow but steady course toward extinction.

Todd Sonflieth / OPB

Just as Forsman helped pioneer studying spotted owls in the 20th century, Lesmeister’s work is pioneering in the 21st. “It’s likely,” says Lesmeister, “that over the next couple years, bioacoustics will become the standard range-wide, from the Canadian border to northern California.”

Related: A War, The Chainsaw And The 2nd Great Cutting Of The Northwest

Yet the hard reality is that populations of spotted owls are continuing to decline on a slow but steady course towards extinction.

By bringing the sounds of the forest into his lab, Lesmeister has a front-row seat to observe the change.

As Ruff plays another track, a familiar sound comes out of the computer’s speakers. It is the four-note territorial call of the spotted owl. It is the call they use, Lesmeister explains, to say, “I am here.”

Hoot…hoo-hoo…hoooo.

Perhaps it is the file compression or the hiss of the digital noise on the recording, but it sounds oddly a lot like a crackling wax cylinder recording from the 19th century — as if what we are hearing is not the sound of an animal alive today, but an echo from the distant past.

I wonder: what would it be like to capture the very last recording of the last of a species?

Lesmeister’s research might, eventually, do just that.

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Tags: Science & Environment, Animals, Environment, Fish &Amp; Wildlife, Flora And Fauna, Forestry, History, Land, Land Use, Nw Life, Science, Spotted Owl, Endangered Species