Tiny Kamloops owls under threat from longer, more destructive fire seasons

Flammulated owls, a top target for local birdwatchers, prefer the dry pine forest habitat that is burning up around British Columbia.
Flammulated owls are Canada’s smallest species of owl. Researchers say they’re under threat because of climate change and habitat loss, despite some conservation efforts around Kamloops. Photo by Jose Abrego, U.S. Forest Service

A little known species of owl, the Flammulated owl, which nests in the forests across Canada is under threat from longer, more destructive wildfire seasons

Between six and seven inches tall when fully grown, Flammulated owls are one of the smallest owls in the world. Researchers say they’ve evolved over millions of years to specialize in old, dry mountain pine forests. 

These owls breed in and west of the Rocky Mountains throughout the United States and Southern Canada. In British Columbia, they’re found in the Okanagan-Similkameen, Cariboo and Thomspons-Nicola regions. 

Previous research found B.C.’s highest density of nesting Flammulated 0wls was concentrated around the Lac Du Bois protected area. But despite their preferred habitat of mid-elevation coniferous forests — which exist locally – very few birders from Kamloops and surrounding communities have reported seeing them. 

That may be due to wildfires impacting the habitat the species relies on. More than 1.8 million hectares have burned in 2023, adding to more than 15 million hectares burned across Canada, data from Natural Resource Canada shows

Flammulated owl conservation efforts in Kamloops

Every spring, Tom Beeke, a Kamloops birder and nature guide, hangs nest boxes in forests outside the city. This offers the owls, which nest in tree cavities, more of the spaces they need to reproduce and it is part of a larger species conservation program organized by the Vancouver Avian Research Centre. 

Despite spending four years monitoring nesting boxes in various trees and seven years birding locally, Beeke has still never seen a Flammulated owl.

Beeke and his son have set up nest boxes in the forests around Kamloops, but haven’t managed to attract a nesting Flammulated Owls. Photo by Tom Beeke

“I haven’t even seen a flutter,” Beeke told The Wren. “I haven’t even seen a shadow. I seriously thought I would have had one by now… I’ve tried [hanging nest boxes in] aspens, I’ve tried Douglas fir, I’ve tried open areas, I’ve tried flat areas, steep areas, enclosed areas and I just can’t get one.”

Beeke has recorded over 250 bird species in the region and guides people to see other local birds, including other species of owl. His spotting skills even landed him a sponsorship with Austrian binocular manufacturer Swarovski Optik. 

But the owls, which sport patchy gray and tawny feathers, easily blend into tree cover and Beeke says they typically live in thick, remote forest areas away from people.

Their low-pitched, distinctive calls, which are unlike those of larger owl species, also contribute to a lack of sightings, according to Beeke.

“You could be camping in the forest, a [Flammulated owl] could be calling within 50 metres of your tent, and you wouldn’t even know it was an owl,”  Beeke says. “Whereas if it’s a Barred owl in the tree, you’re not even sleeping.”

Researcher Scott Yanco has spent more than a decade studying Flammulated owls. He said the traits that make them difficult for birders to find, also make the species challenging for scientists to track. Photo by Scott Yanco

Researchers also struggle to monitor Flammulated owl behaviour and population. University of Michigan biologist Scott Yanco has studied the species for more than a decade. He says scientists don’t know if their numbers are trending up or down. 

“It’s a really difficult species to find and study, and there’s not a lot of people out there looking for them,”  Yanco says. 

Bird species surveys, which are common in North America and are “phenomenal” at revealing important population and migration information for hundreds of species, aren’t useful for monitoring Flammulated owls because the birds are incredibly reclusive, Yanco says. 

Monitoring programs do reveal that, in general, bird populations in North America are under stress. A 2019 analysis of bird surveys found there were three billion fewer birds in the U.S. and Canada than there were in 1970, a drop of about 30 per cent. 

“Our best guess, and it really is a guess right now, is that they’re probably not uncommon in dry pine habitats, but it’s a habitat increasingly encroached upon by humans,” Yanco explains.

Flammulated owls face various threats

During the winters, Yanco and other researchers believe some Flammulated owls travel over three thousand kilometres, from the dry pine forests of British Columbia, to the highlands of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt in central-southern Mexico. Yanco says logging in central-southern Mexico is common and development activity is increasing in that region, threatening the owl’s wintering grounds.

Flammulated owls also face threats closer by. Yanco spent years tracking owl activity in areas burned by wildfire and found the birds completely avoid areas where some trees are heavily burned even a decade after the fire and even if some trees were left untouched. The findings are concerning to Yanco, as wildfires change in character and frequency. 

“In these areas where you might [previously] lose a few trees, now you’re losing entire swaths of forest,” he said. “If 100,000 acres all of a sudden become completely unsuitable for Flammulated owls, that’s a huge area that’s now not habitat… they’re either going to have to crowd in [elsewhere] and compete with each other for space, or simply stop reproducing.”

Yanco weighs a Flammulated chick in the forests of Colorado, where he studied the impacts of wildfire on the species. Photo by Scott Yanco

The species is about 12 million years old, and Yanco doubts it can adapt to live in wetter climates which are less at risk of wildfire damage. 

“That’s a lot of time for evolution to make them good at living in a single type of system,” he explains. 

The looming threats facing Flammulated owls are certainly alarming, but Yanco is not daunted by the task of adapting to the consequences of climate change.

“It motivates me to keep doing this work,” he says. “I’m confident we can change these things.” 

Like the other animals of B.C. dry forests, the future for Flammulated owls depends on preventing further encroachment into old-pine forests and cutting fossil fuel emissions. 

Local birders hoping for sightings

Given the rarity of sightings and their uncertain future, the owls are a top target for many birders. 

Allan Dupilka, a retired forestry worker, and his wife Reba have recorded 287 species in the Thompson-Nicola region, more than anyone else, according to the popular bird sighting database eBird. 

Dupilka says he sometimes hears Flammulated owls calling from the front porch of his house on Shuswap Lake and though he spends every day searching for birds, he’s never seen one. 

Unlike many birders, Dupilka says he doesn’t chase after rare birds and is happy finding whichever species he comes across while exploring the Interior’s different ecosystems. Still, he would like to spot and photograph a Flammulated owl eventually. 

“I’m too old to get frustrated about birding,” he says. “If I’m out walking… and if I see a Flammulated owl, [it’ll be] a great feeling.”

Like Dupilka, Tom Beeke is still optimistic. He’s already thinking about a celebration, when a Flammulated owl finally takes to one of his nest boxes.

Lillooet Brewing Co. makes a Flammulated Owl I.P.A., described online as “crisp, orange, and citrus with floral notes.” The cans feature a drawing of a winking owl on the front. Beeke intends to buy one when he finally gets a peek at this tiny bird. 

“I’ve got it saved in my phone for when I first see my first,” Beeke says. “That’s how I’m going to celebrate.”

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