It's Getting Hot in Here: A New Paradigm About Spotted Owls and Fire
The Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) is one of the most iconic old-growth-dependent bird species in the Pacific Northwest, California, and Southwest. This imperiled bird of prey typically nests, roosts, and forages in dense conifer and mixed conifer-oak forests dominated by large, old trees and peppered with big, decadent snags and fallen logs. High levels of canopy cover from overhead foliage is another important component of nesting and roosting stands; thus, it has long been presumed that Spotted Owls were seriously harmed where severe fire burned the forest canopy.
Yet, the forests where these owls dwell have experienced mixed- and high-severity fire for millennia—so how do these birds actually respond when severe fire affects habitat within their home ranges?
Several studies have now demonstrated that Spotted Owls can survive and thrive (successfully reproduce) within territories that have experienced moderate- and high-severity fire. Research published by Wild Nature Institute’s scientists and others have found the following:
Spotted owls generally survive and continue to reproduce in territories that experienced severe fire.
Only marginal sites (often vacant and non-reproductive) have lower occupancy after severe fire.
Spotted owls nest and roost in stands with high canopy cover (unburned/low burned) even in burned landscapes.
Spotted owls forage in severely burned stands.
Home-range sizes are similar in burned and unburned landscapes.
Post-fire logging causes territory abandonment and reduces survival.
In these studies, Spotted Owls still preferred to nest and roost in green forests, underscoring the importance of unburned or low-severity refugia within the larger landscape mosaic of mixed-severity fire. But where severe fire is natural, even old-growth species partake of its bounty. The Spotted Owl paradigm is telling us that natural fire regimes provide a bedroom, nursery, and kitchen, as long as the burned forest is left standing.
Spotted Owl territory in the Red Star Fire, Eldorado National Forest.
Post-fire logging on private lands after the Red Star Fire, Eldorado National Forest.
Scientific publications by Wild Nature Institute scientists about Spotted Owls and Forest Fire: