Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The City of Arcata employs a person whose duties sometimes include pretending he’s a mouse. And he’s very good at that – even owls fall for it. Oh, and he sometimes imitates them too.
Michael McDowall is the Environmental Services natural resources technician charged with monitoring the threatened Northern Spotted Owls on Arcata-owned forestland.
Six times a year, McDowall gingerly wades into the most remote recesses of the forest to observe the owls’ behavior, check their health and note any arrivals or departures. Last week he mounted the first survey of the year in the Jacoby Creek Forest, looking for a nesting pair he first discovered in 2017.
“I have a pretty good feeling about where they’re gonna be tonight,” McDowall says.
Along for the ride are some white mice, a few of which he’ll use to observe the owls’ behavior. To his practiced eye, how the owls respond to the offering will tell a lot about them.
That is, if any turn up. “Owling” is a delicate operation, and a fine art. “You’re just really trying not to disrupt these owls,” he says, because it’s all too easy to do so. Contact must be close, but minimal so as not to habituate the owls to human contact – that is, get them used to people or be attracted to them. And what attracts spotted owls also interests other avians such as ravens and Steller’s jays, who disrupt the mission.
Especially unhelpful are a member of the owls’ own genus, though a different species – the burly Barred owls, who bother, bully and outcompete their daintier big-eyed brethren at every opportunity.
It’s early evening when McDowall enters the Jacoby Creek Forest. The waning light fades further on entering the forest canopy, where an overgrown path becomes an animal trail, then a bushwhack route. Stepping carefully through clumps of stinging nettles and poison oak and clambering over downed trees, McDowall pauses and points back up the path just traveled, to our escort. Perched on a branch is the unmistakable silhouette of an owl. Descending down into a steep ravine, the owl tails the human interlopers, keeping a close eye at a safe distance.
Stopping at a small ledge near a mossy stump, McDowall sets up his research station. As luck would have it, both owls in this known pair are present, eliminating any need for McDowall to do his extremely convincing mouse or owl imitations.
The pair watch McDowall and his mouse box intently as he makes initial observations and jots down notes. Officially identified by bureaucratic location nomenclature, we're dubbing them Vern and Dierdre for purposes of this dinner date.
In person, the iconic owls who have been at the center of so much local lore, legend and environmental controversy really are all that. Poised on tree branches, the pair stand and stare with a regal bearing and dignity, heads swiveling almost robotically as they lock their wide-eyed gaze on things of interest and maintain situational awareness.
It's no wonder owls are assumed to be wise – their precise, measured movements appear considered and efficient, the result of some sort of calculation or plan. They're spotted, just as advertised, stunningly statuesque, even elegant in a feathery way, and positively radiate gravitas.
Plucking a white mouse and dangling it by the tail, McDowell places it on a stump and in a sudden flurry, the male owl swoops down and snatches it up, then repairs to a branch to consume his groundscore. Seeing this, the female makes an unmistakable pleading sound, asking for a piece of the action. But Mr. Owl hogs the whole mouse, not sharing and possibly indicating that “he’s not feeling so nesty,” as McDowall puts it.
The process is repeated with both owls, with behaviors noted. The feeding must be limited so as not to disrupt their habits, or habituate them to human beings. “It’s all about painting a picture with the mice,” McDowall says. “I always try to think like the owl.”
As the feeding continues, he jots down lengthy notes. This pair has spawned at least one owlet, but that was two years ago. The Spotted owls are under increasing pressure from Barred owls, with whom they share habitat and compete for food. But while the Spotteds rely on rodents for 98 percent of their nutrition, they comprise just 76 percent of the more versatile Barred owls’ diet, giving them wider range and resilience. They also start nesting in the same habitat a month earlier, in February, and are highly territorial.
Having observed the Spotteds since 2001, McDowall notes their more cautious behavior due to Barred competition. “These birds are changing before my eyes,” he says.
Later this night, McDowall will venture alone into the forest darkness – keeping an eye out for mountain lions and bears – to survey other areas of the Jacoby Creek Forest for owls known and new. He’ll do that until August, when his feathered friends fly off to parts unknown. “We don’t have a great feeling about where they go outside survey season,” McDowall says.
“That was nice night,” he said later. “We performed that survey just as I had hoped (got the data we needed and kept the owls safe) Its great to see those owls still paired up and courting each other despite Barred owl presence around them. I hope they have a successful nesting season.”
“Owls are so inspirational and I feel so lucky to work with them,” McDowall said. “The citizens of Arcata are fortunate to own such magnificent forestlands. And I too feel extremely fortunate to be a part of their management.”