The spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) is a medium-sized North American owl which has become a famously divisive symbol, thanks to the fact that it is used as an indicator species to assess the health of old growth forests. These owls can be found along the Western part of North America from British Columbia to Mexico, and they have been subjects of intensive study among biologists, loggers, and environmental activists. The spotted owl is currently classified as an endangered species, meaning that it is entitled to certain protections under the law.
Spotted owls have distinctively spotted chests, barred wings and bellies, and dark brown plumage, with puffy heads and wide, dark eyes. These birds are quite easy to identify, thanks to their distinctive appearance, and they are also extremely shy and strictly nocturnal. Spotted owls are carnivores, feeding on a range of small mammals and insects, and they made a unique high-pitched hoot, usually repeating several hoots in short sequence to call to each other.
This owl has become a conservation icon because of the habitat it prefers: spotted owls thrive in old growth conifer forests, preferring mature forests to newer growth. They are especially common in the redwoods, although they can also be found in pines, firs, and other conifers. Spotted owls also require large areas of contiguous habitat, and this makes them very vulnerable to logging and other human activity.
The barred owl, a similar species, is much more adaptable than the spotted owl, and as a result, the spotted owl is being displaced in many regions, even those set aside for the purpose of habitat protection. The combined pressures of human habitation, logging, and growing barred owl populations have led spotted owl populations to shrink across North America, with these vulnerable owls slowly vanishing from North American forests.
When the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species in 1990, it attracted a great deal of attention among environmental activists and the logging community. The spotted owl became a major bone of contention between these two groups, with activists pushing for more protections for the owls, including logging moratoriums, and loggers arguing that intense regulation was hurting the logging industry. Today, logging companies are required to survey for spotted owls and other endangered species before harvesting trees, and many of these companies employ wildlife biologists known as hooters, who track and identify owls by imitating their calls and waiting for the owls to respond.