Island owl needs protection, say experts

  • Aug. 21, 2007 7:00 p.m.

The number of saw-whet owls on Haida Gwaii has declined so much that a group of wildlife experts and scientists is recommending the federal government add the subspecies to the list of animals at risk in Canada. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada says the saw-whet owl population here has declined by about 40-percent since industrial logging started, and that its habitat continues to disappear. The little owls live only in old-growth or mature forests, moving into old tree cavities originally inhabited by hairy woodpeckers or sapsuckers. The saw-whet owls found on the islands are distinct from those on the mainland, said species at risk coordinator Berry Wijdeven. They are smaller and their feathers are darker. They also go out to the beach to forage for food, which mainland saw-whets don’t do. The committee has recommended the federal government list the Haida Gwaii saw-whet as threatened. The government will likely make a decision on that recommendation in a few months, Mr. Wijdeven said. If the government agrees with the recommendation, then an owl recovery team will be set up, Mr. Wijdeven explained. The team will have two years to come up with a recovery strategy, which must be approved by the provincial and federal governments. It sounds like a slow process, but the strategy can have large implications, he said, as it can require that owl habitat be protected from logging. Animals currently listed as threatened on Haida Gwaii include the goshawk, the Haida ermine, and the marbled murrelet. Mr. Wijdeven said the saw-whet is not as elusive as the rarely-seen Haida ermine. In the spring, he went out into the forest and played a recording of their call to see if any would respond, and heard quite a few of them. In the fall, there are often a couple of saw-whets hit by cars turned into his office, as they seem to migrate from the interior of the forest out to the coast at that time of year, he said. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife estimates the population of saw-whet owls on the islands at about 1,850 birds, many living in Gwaii Haanas. The fact that Gwaii Haanas is a protected area tipped the balance for the committee to recommend the owls be listed as threatened rather than endangered, Mr. Wijdeven said. In addition to habitat destruction from logging, the owls are threatened by introduced species and vehicles.