Adoption: The Recovery of the Eagle and the Demise of the Spotted Owl

Recent weeks have brought diametrically opposed tidings on the plight of endangered species: eagles are being removed from the Threatened List, but the Northern Spotted Owl appears headed towards extinction. In both cases hominids have altered their behavior in an attempt to ward off extinction. Why was one species successful and why will the other likely perish?

The success of the eagle and the likely demise of the spotted owl can be traced to a naïve assumption behind the Endangered Species Act. Most recovery plans are premised on a “reference condition” when the species in question was plentiful. Usually, the decline of the species is linked to human alteration of its habitat (clear cutting old growth forests where Northern Spotted Owls reside) or other alterations of the environment (DDT thinning eagle shells). Generally, a goal of the recovery plan is to attempt to make conditions as much like the reference condition as possible to establish enough habitat in its “properly functioning condition” to maintain the species. Implicit in this strategy is that interactions between hominids and wild creatures are bad and that any alteration of the “natural” environment is negative.

The central fault with the Endangered Species Act is that it froze earth in 1973 and ignored the fact that evolution occurs over both generations and eons. While human interaction with wild animals may not be politically correct, it happens continuously. Fighting against this reality and trying to keep the environment the same that it was in 1973 is both counter-productive and unnatural. That does not mean that critical habitat for endangered species should be developed willy-nilly; rather, it holds that we should acknowledge that hominid dwellings and activities have permanently altered ecosystems. We should be pragmatic and attempt to recover species to survive in that context rather than artificially trying to return to an impossible Ecotopia past.

The success of animals in a human context is a story of adoption. One of the first involved wolves that feasted on the refuse in the first garbage dumps in ancient Egypt. These carrion eaters grew comfortable with the human garbage dumpers and, eventually, became dogs. You can see the product of this “unnatural” evolutionary change in any park where fastidious hominids trail behind their hounds carrying their poop and beseeching them in the chirpy, exasperated tones reserved for a slow third-grader.

Similarly, house cats likely descended from their wild brethren through the first Sumerian granaries. These stockpiles of feed attracted vermin, whose presence drew wild cats to eat the rodents. Felis and hominid recognized a mutually beneficial arrangement and at this very moment my cat is napping on my easy chair.

The success of the eagle closely mirrors these ancient “adoptions.” Hominids rightly stopped using DDT, hunting eagles, and strove to protect eagle habitat; however, eagles have prospered by establishing nests in rural hominid habitats and other hominid structures like utility poles. This adoption is mutual. Witness the woman in rural Oregon that saw a downed eagle stuck with porcupine quills, prayed for God’s guidance, and found the strength to deliver the injured bird of prey to a veterinarian who treated it for free. Of course, “naturally” any eagle that was so unwise or unlucky to have experienced such a tet-a-tet with a porcupine should not have reproduced. Then again, to sustain my cat I pour four ounces of hominid-produced food pellets into a plastic bowl every morning.

The most fascinating aspect of the eagle’s recovery is the behavioral reversal it reveals. Fifty years ago a fit eagle was one that avoided people as people were likely to try to kill it. Today, as the above story reveals, eagle-human interaction is generally neutral or positive for the eagle. The New York City Department of Parks is trying to establish a nesting pair in Central Park.

Other successful “adoptions” have a similar history. A month ago I was one of a throng of people delighting in the antics of scores of seal lions resting on a sandy beach on the California coast. The sea lions seemed indifferent to their fans. One-hundred and fifty years ago a successful sea lion was the sea lion that avoided the harpoon clutching biped stalking its breeding grounds.

Another adoption appears to be in progress around Tahoe, California where black bears have taking to performing pantry raids at hominid domiciles. Some of these bears are no longer hibernating and instead are feeding year round, getting fatter, and producing more progeny. Affinity for this charismatic megafauna, and social pressure, stops most hominid residents from harming the bears.

Evolution occurs in generations.

Adoption is not limited to clever mammals. Scientists have recently found that some Snake River fall Chinook have developed a “hold-over” life history in which they over-winter in the river after emerging rather than migrating. No one knows if this is a product of the damming of the river and its susbsequent creation of reservoirs or if it is a life history strategy from time immemorial. Regardless, these fish outmigrate when they are larger and stronger and make up a disproportionate share of returning adults. Unlike the other species mentioned here, however, hominids still purposefully slaughter them by the thousands.

So, wither the spotted owl?

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan kept the same habitat that was maintaining the Northern Spotted Owl. They are not hunted, and most hominids are probably trained to be gentle towards them. The species is going extinct because it is being supplanted by the Barrow Owl, an east coast species that likely hop-scotched westward by taking refuge in forests which hominids foolishly stopped from burning naturally. The Barrow Owl’s success is not a surprise. It feeds twenty-four hours a day where the Northern Spotted Owl only feeds at night. Its diet is more varied. Barrows pack together and reproduce more quickly. The Barrow Owl has adapted to the hominid environment, but adoption appears to be a ways off. The biologists that first uncovered the plight of the Northern Spotted Owl are looking to learn precisely where the Barrow Owl resides in what was once good Spotted Owl territory. That way if it becomes necessary to shoot the Barrow Owls, marksmen could concentrate their fire where it will be most effective. At the behest of biologists an apex predator may be hunted for the purpose of preserving a less fit species.

It appears that wild animals can adopt more quickly than domesticated hominids can adapt their thinking.