Birds of a Feather

[Words by David Suzuki]

Water drips from moss-covered branches. Three-hundred foot giants creak and sway enough to make a sailor queasy. Burnt, twisted snags tell stories of fierce lightning storms that strike the tallest trees in the forest while far below, blind voles burrow beneath a lush carpet of green, distributing nutrients where roots search for food.

This is a rainforest, a magical ecosystem so rich with life that even scientists admit they only have clues about its complexity. A place where squirrels fly at night and where the sun is an almost mythological figure – more fantasy than reality, forever shrouded in mist.

Yet this rainforest is not in Brazil or Venezuela. It’s not in Indonesia or the Philippines. Here, when it’s not raining, it’s probably snowing. This is Canada.

This is home to the country’s rarest bird – the Northern Spotted Owl. A decade ago there were about one hundred of these owls left in the rainforests of British Columbia. This year, no more than eight nesting pairs have been seen.

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Spotted Owls are beautifully adapted to survive in the rainforest. They can swivel their heads 270 degrees to spot prey. They fly with a distinctive style – burst, glide, burst, glide as they maneuver through the forest. Specially adapted feathers make their flight almost silent – and deadly in the dark. These birds are also modernists, choosing to look for pre-fab homes in snapped tree tops, mossy branches and rotten wood instead of building their own nests.

Ironically, this adaptation may now threaten the owl’s very existence. It may seem like a contradiction, but when birds are exquisitely adapted to a specific environment and that environment disappears their future quickly becomes ill fated.

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Owls have been imbued with mystical associations throughout history and throughout the world. Every continent with human habitation has incorporated the owl into a significant place in its iconography – Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America all have myriad spiritual values for this nocturnal bird. Ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology portrayed the owl as the bearer of spiritual influence. More recently, JK Rowling has reintroduced the magic of the owl back into the zeitgeist: In the world of Hogwarts, the bird is both a faithful companion and reliable messenger, dear to the heart of millions of Harry Potter readers.

Five thousand years ago the Egyptians saw owls as a symbol of death. Now, in 21st century Canada, Northern Spotted Owls have become another symbol of death – their own.

Northern Spotted Owls need vast tracks of unspoiled ancient rainforest to survive. They need the giant swaying trees, the dripping moss and the ever-present mist. They need it to hunt, to nest and to breed. When the rainforests in British Columbia disappear, so too do the owls.

Logging companies always remind us that trees are replanted after being clearcut, but replanted tree farms are radically different from the forests they replace – try comparing the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas to the Pyramids in Egypt. Second-growth forests are usually crowded with thin trees of the same age that lack the biological diversity and complexity that creatures like the Northern Spotted Owls need for survival.

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Owls bear the markings of yet another symbol in our modern world. Today, forest ecologists see the owl as a symbol of forest health. The Spotted Owl isn’t the only creature that needs large tracts of old-growth forest to survive. Some 137 additional species of plants and animals – at least the ones that we know about – depend exclusively on the same old-growth habitat. Three other species of owl are on that list. So is the Northern Goshawk, two species of cutthroat trout, and dozens of lesser-known species such as the Rocky Mountain tailed frog and the Pacific giant salamander.

In a rainforest, all of these creatures matter. Microscopic creatures are consumed by larger ones, which are in turn consumed by even larger creatures. Each species is part of a cycle, an infinite mobius loop of life and death that has gone on for millions of years. As the rainforest continues to splinter apart into small, isolated pockets, it is inevitable that other species will join the queue for extinction.

The devastation of the rainforest brings further implications. Rainforests store carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere and make global warming worse. They purify our air and our water. They provide a place for salmon to spawn and a home for thousands of other species. In fact, the diversity of life, or biodiversity, found here is among the richest in the world. Eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has likened walking into a temperate rainforest to entering “a great cathedral of dense, living matter.”

This magical ecosystem, which allows fantasy and reality to become one, is at a crossroad. The foreboding owl extinction threatens more than just a single species or a cultural history: The health of the rainforest affects all of us. Right now, dedicated environmental groups are fighting to help the Spotted Owl survive. But this battle isn’t just about an owl: It’s as big as the earth itself.