Conserving our owls from invasive species


Birders love owls, those mysterious creatures that haunt the night. Unfortunately, one of these owls, the Barred Owl, is rapidly expanding its range at the expense of another, the Endangered Northern Spotted Owl. Something has to be done.

In the last months of 2023, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced a thirty-year plan to lethally remove around 500,000 Barred Owls in the Pacific Northwest from California to Washington in an attempt to bring back the dwindling Spotted Owl, an iconic Pacific Northwest species that was the subject of serious debate over timber practices in the 1980s and 90s.

Spotted Owl, close up of face.
Spotted Owl, close up of face.

The Spotted Owl is an old-growth forest specialist, relying on our ancient forests for food cover and nesting. Deforestation virtually wiped them out in the late 1900s, as Spotties became the face of a forest preservation movement that would eventually end much of the Pacific Northwest's old-growth logging. Even after their old-growth habitats were protected, Spotted Owls continued their steep decline. It was only then that we realized that deforestation was no longer their biggest threat, for there was a new owl in town. Larger, more adaptable, and highly aggressive.

Barred Owl
Barred Owl

The Barred Owl, a species many are probably familiar with, is our most common owl species in Washington. When you hear an owl in your neighborhood or yard, the chances are that it's a Barred. Their distinctive “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” song can be heard across our state at all times of year, night and day, and in just about any forested area.

What many don't know about the Barred Owl, is that it is actually an invasive species. Native to eastern North America, it has expanded its range into the West in recent decades. Some suggest that this is a natural range expansion. That is not the case; nothing about this is natural.  This is a human-facilitated expansion, with Barred Owls using trees planted for things such as windbreaks and parks to hopscotch across the great plains and end up in our western forests.

In Washington State, Barred Owls first started appearing in the 1970s, and by the 80s and 90s were thoroughly established. Around the year 2000, Spotted Owl numbers appeared to plummet, right as Barred Owl numbers started to really take off. The Barred Owl is now found at over 90 percent of Spotted Owls' nest sites, and our Washington State population of Spotted Owls has dropped rapidly and is currently facing extinction within the next couple of decades. Barreds have been shown to actively displace, kill, and hybridize with our Spotteds and are the main factor now driving them to extinction. 

They don't belong here; our Pacific Northwest owls simply haven't evolved with anything like the Barred, and hence have no answer for their sudden arrival on the scene. Although this doesn't get nearly as much attention as the Spotties, other birds and animals have suffered greatly from Barred expansions, too. A good example of this is Western Screech Owls. Once common across Western Washington, they are now virtually unfindable due to becoming a menu item for the expanding Barred.

Western Screech Owl
Western Screech Owl

Many will read this and think that killing Barred Owls is a barbaric and ineffective response to the issue at hand. Concerns I've seen are everywhere, from worries that other owl species will accidentally be terminated to statements that it just plain won't work. These are valid worries. Of course, no project like this comes without risk, but the facts about it don't lie. Barred and Spotted Owls are very different-looking and sounding birds; the risk of accidentally shooting a Spotted Owl is monumentally low, especially since there are barely any to shoot. Barred Owls will be located by playing recordings of their calls to invoke a territorial response, and when the Barred comes within 30 yards of the shooter, it will be culled. This method leaves little room for other owl species to interfere, especially since all our native Pacific Northwest owls want nothing to do with a Barred!

Another concern has been from homeowners and others who have Barred Owls in their neighborhoods and yards and are worried that those owls will be shot. Not to fear! Barred Owl removal will be limited for the most part to important Spotted Owl areas and near their last nesting sites, all of which are very remote. Nobody is going to lay a lead finger on your backyard owls. Will it work? I see no reason for it not to. Small-scale Barred removal trials conducted over the past decade have shown overwhelmingly positive responses from Spotties. There is enough habitat to support self-sustaining Spotted Owl populations in Washington Oregon and California, and the only thing standing in their way is Barred.

In August of 2023, I was camped in the Olympic Mountains at the site of one of the Olympics last Spotted Owls, a single male bird. As the sun started to set, the Spottie woke and called four or five times from the steep slopes about a quarter mile away from my camp and across a creek. A haunting four-note song, “who, Who Who! Whooo.” Right on queue, a Barred Owl responded to the Spotted, the Barred being right above my camp on my side of the creek. The Spotted went quiet, and did not call again until just after midnight when it sang another six times.

A few minutes after this second round of calls, the Barred Owl that had been stationed above me was suddenly singing from the other side of the creek, right where the Spotted was. It had flown from its territory, across the creek, through the open, and straight to the Spotted Owl. The Spotted never called again that night, and the next time I heard it, it was substantially further up the creek, further from the Barred. This is what's happening every night to our last Spotties, and our Screeches as well. A constant barrage of Barred harassment, like clockwork, driving them to their deaths.

I argue that it is time to step it up, because without this proposed action, there is no question about it: We will lose Spotted Owls, and extinction is forever. Barred has a thriving population in the east; they aren't needed here, and the ecological pros of removing them greatly outweigh any cons. We need to get the facts right, and see that this is a last resort and the only option left. Nobody wants to shoot an owl, but if given the choice between an invasive species and one that is almost extinct with a direct correlation between the two, I know what I'll be choosing.

Today our column was written by Liam Hutcheson, a student at Olympia's Avanti High School who is an avid birder and accomplished bird photographer.  

Normally, Liam's mentor, George Walter, writes our bird column. He is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at


13 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Terrilovesanimals

    So are you saying that humans planted those tress just for the barred owls to use to expand their territory or were the trees We truly love owls and don't want any killed. I have a huge owl book and an owl on my kitchen counter.

    Thursday, February 1 Report this

  • KatAshe

    As sad as it is to destroy an entire species, sometimes it is necessary. When I moved back from California in 1997 my garden was filled with our local blue jays and pigeons. Today I rarely see our jays as they have been replaced by scrub jays that have migrated through California and Oregon and set up home here. Where once, my garden would welcome flocks of 50-100 of our slim local pigeons, they have permanently disappeared, replaced by swarms of fat alien ones. The only saving grace is the Cooper Hawk who comes into my garden to feast on them, though it would take dozens of hawks to control just my ‘visitors’.

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • JasonS

    In reply to the first comment: The author stated that the Barred Owl used the trees which had been planed for windbreaks and parks, and did not suggest those had been planted "just for the barred owls to use". And he also agreed with your feeling that no one truly wants to kill any of these owls. But if the choice is to cull just some of the Barred Owls, or to accept that ALL of the Spotted Owl will go extinct within a generation, which would you choose? That conundrum is ultimately the point of the article.

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • Boatyarddog

    Since this has been stated:

    This is a human-facilitated expansion, with Barred Owls using trees planted for things such as windbreaks and parks to hopscotch across the great plains and end up in our western forests.

    Culling Barred Owls won't stop anything.

    Did you think they only exist here.?

    How about protecting whats left of the Spotted owls Habitat?

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • Boatyarddog

    And then i Read this:

    New research published today in the journal Science has concluded that eradicating animals on the basis that they are not native in order to protect plant species can be a flawed practice costing millions of dollars, and resulting in the slaughter of millions of healthy wild animals.

    Best leave Conservation Effort to the Experts!

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • LiamHutcheson

    Replying to the comment that says "culling Barred Owls wont stop anything."

    It has been scientifically proven to aid Spotted Owl recovery. One study showed that when Barred Owls were removed from a Spotted Owl nest site, the Spotties returned within a year. This conservation effort is being left to the experts, which are USFWS. I was simply writing an opinion on it, since I have alot of experience with this issue and with both owl species. Spotted Owl habitat is currently protected, the US forest service recently announced an end to old growth logging and Trump administration policies that destroyed Spotted Owl habitat were immediately overturned by Biden.

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • SecondOtter

    I would like to see the data supporting the theory that eradicating Barred Owls has a beneficial effect on Spotted Owls. Did it not occur to the """experts"", the Fish and Wildlife department, that the Spotted merely moved elsewhere when it's nest was supposedly usurped by a Barred? NOT eaten by the Barred? Does the literature suggest that Barreds eat ONLY owls? That is not true.

    I would like to see the hard evidence of Barreds eating Spotteds. Did they F&W collect owl pellets, analyzed them for DNA and do the math? Have they actually witnessed a Spotted being killed by a Barred? Do they know that Great Horned Owls will also kill owls? Do they know that Ravens will kill owls? Even Gulls will kill owls. So will raccoons, possums will go for their eggs, and some people will shoot an owl thinking it is killing his chickens...when the biggest predator of all avian eggs is the black rat.

    Once they've eradicated Barreds, does the F&W believe that Spotteds will then rebound? At this point the gene pool is shallow. And also understand that just killing off Barreds doesn't mean the old growth forest will magically reappear, like Jack's Beanstalk. Voil, a', no Barreds and stand back, the doug fir tree is going to grow three hundred feet in thirty minutes.

    Calling the F&W department 'experts' is ludicrous. Consider the slaughter they committed near Ilwaco, trying to eradicate Double Crested Cormorants from a small island where they roosted, so that they wouldn't eat migrating salmon smolts. All the cormorants did was move to the bridge that crosses the River to Astoria, and from the safety of the bridge, they are eating even MORE salmon smolts.

    Now to compound the insanity, they're going to try and drive them BACK to the island.

    This isn't science. THis isn't even logic. They're dithering about rather than doing something about the truly invasive speices, the ones that have and are currently destroying populations of native birds. I'm talking the House Sparrow. The Starling. Those two are relentless, aggressive and prolific. We are going to lose the American kestrel to Starlings, as they like the same size nest box and destroy the eggs of the kestrel. House Sparrows and Starlings need eradicating, but..well, the F&W doesn't want to spend the time or money doing that.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    And to say that only a few Barreds will be removed and only in a remote part of the Olympic peninsula where Spotteds are nesting is wrong, too. Right now, Seattle Animal Control is killing barreds, and NOT in the Olympics. Seattle Animal Control is NOT the Fish and Wildlife, they are contractors.

    And what makes anyone think that barreds will stay away from Spotted habitat? Drive down Delphi Road to the Capitol Forest and see what the DNR is doing. It is logging the entire Forest. THey're taking old growth, young growth and leaving one or two spindly trees per fifty acres to say they're not clear cutting. My boots they're not clear cutting, and they're leaving slash and scotch broom. LOSS OF HABITAT is what is driving the Spotted to extinction, and the DNR is enabling it by removing all habitat save that that is 'protected'.

    Saying 'they' won't kill 'my' barred owls, the one living in the vicinity of my home in south Thurston county, is gaslighting. I didn't band it. I don't own it. For all I know, it will move to the Olympics. For all the F&W knows, it has never seen a spotted owl in its life. You can't differentiate one that hunts rodents and one that takes the occasional Spotted.

    Face it. Humans are responsible for bring the Spotted Owl to the brink of extinction. Barreds '''invading' From the east is just gaslighting. Barreds are owls. Not monsters, not avian Terminators. They're just owls.

    Killing one species of owl with the crossed fingers hope hope it works for another species is not science. It's stupidity.

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • LiamHutcheson

    Hello @secondotter. I would like to say I have read your comment, and it seems you have misinterpreted my opinion piece as a personal attack. I encourage you to do your own research and form your own opinion, but please dont spew this kind of negativity. I will do my best to address your points, most of which are false and completely baseless.

    "I would like to see the data supporting the theory that eradicating Barred Owls has a beneficial effect on Spotted Owls": There are many more studies where this came from. Its scientifically proven.

    "I would like to see the hard evidence of Barreds eating Spotteds": I NEVER said that they ate them. There have been first hand observations, some by people I know quite closely and trust, of Barred actively killing Spotted and other native owl species. I am not sure any of this has been published.

    "Once they've eradicated Barreds, does the F&W believe that Spotteds will then rebound": Precisely so, its not a belief, its a fact and scientifically proven. There are more out there then people think, they're one tough bird, the gene pool is not to shallow.

    "Calling the F&W department 'experts' is ludicrous.": Who are the experts then? Certainly not you or me, I would say that the people who have devoted their lives to studying Spotties are the experts here, and they are the ones who made this decision.

    "This isn't science. THis isn't even logic.": I'm not sure what your definition of science is but it seems to be rather flawed? This is well supported by decades long studies. I highly recommend that you actually read them before claiming that they dont exist.

    And to say that only a few Barreds will be removed and only in a remote part of the Olympic peninsula where Spotteds are nesting is wrong, too": I NEVER said that. And what you say about Seattle animal control is not true at all, Barred are and always will be protected, USFWS will need a take permit to remove them.

    "And what makes anyone think that barreds will stay away from Spotted habitat": They wont, thats why they need to be removed. Your example of Capitol Forest is not ideal, there has only ever been one Spotted Owl in Capitol Forest (the summer and fall of 2009) and it was driven there when its territory in the Willipas was logged, That bird had GPS tracking on it which is how we know this.

    "Saying 'they' won't kill 'my' barred owl": It seems your definition of gaslighting is flawed as well, I encourage you not to misuse that term as it caries alot of weight with it. Its odd you would accuse a 16 year old of gaslighting an adult man in an opinion piece article that in no way has anything to do with you.

    I would like to say that humans are completely responsible": yes, I completely agree. That is why it is our responsibility to right what we've done, and whether we like it or not, that is removing Barred Owls which are here because of us.

    Friday, February 2 Report this

  • Georgewalter

    First, I compliment Liam for bring this issue to our attention. He has done a great job of presenting the "conundrum" that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is attempting to address (and also in responding to some rather remarkable comments).

    It is apparent that some commenters are not too crazy about the Service's Barred Owls culling program. So be it, but keep in mind that this is not Liam's program; rather it was developed, after decades of research and consultation, by the federal agency charged with implementing recovery programs for endangered species.

    Saturday, February 3 Report this

  • SecondOtter

    Liam, I apologize if it came off that I was attacking you. I didn't mean it that way. I had no intentions of attacking or flaming you or anybody. I am exasperated that the immediate reaction of the F&W department is to kill barred owls. Please accept my apologies.

    Do I want to see the spotted owl go extinct? Heck no. I'm a field biologist and a master bird bander. But I'm also a realist, and I'm so very sorry that it appears that the Spotted is heading that way.

    The primary reason is loss of habitat, and it appears that the state DNR is exacerbating the problem by logging the Capital Forest. No, there are no spotted owls in the Forest, but there are barreds, great horned, screech, and northern pygmy owls, as well as short eared owls utilizing the prairies (eg, Glacial Heritage and Mima Creek preserves). Deforesting the Black Hills will cause all those tree dwelling owls to move, and the only place left is the Olympic peninsula.

    As for barreds being in Capitol Forest? They are there. I live not a mile from the Forest, and you can hear them, often. I've even found dead ones, hit by cars on Waddell creek Road and Sherman Valley road.

    Sunday, February 4 Report this

  • LiamHutcheson


    No worries, I completely understand and appreciate your insight. I am also not a huge fan of DNRs forest practices, and this is indeed a very rough situation that we have put ourselves in.

    Sunday, February 4 Report this

  • Somney

    Preserving old growth habitat should have priority. I’m not suggesting an “all of the above” solution should not be pursued but unless there is an intense effort to preserve Spotted Owl habitat then I don’t see how culling will work. DNR continues to exacerbate the problem taking away habitat.

    Monday, February 12 Report this

  • LiamHutcheson


    Thank you for your comment, and I agree completely habitat preservation should remain a high priority! Lucky, DNR has little say in actual Spotted Owl habitat, almost every single one of Washington's remaining Spotted Owls are in Olympic National Park and in our states various National Forests including the Gifford Pinchot, Olympic, Okanogan-Wenatchee, and Snoqualmie. There is currently no logging in National Parks, and the US Forest Service recently enacted a new old growth logging ban.

    Tuesday, February 13 Report this