The ultimate goal of the NSOBP is the recovery of northern spotted owls in British Columbia by creating a self-sustaining population in the wild. We recognize and honour the traditional land and skies of the northern spotted owl and the release sites we are striving to return them to. For us, bringing them home to the skies their ancestors once flew is actionable reconciliation for the owls, the land, and Indigenous peoples.
The Government of B.C. has 300,000 hectares of protected habitat within Wildlife Management Areas, provincial parks, and Managed Wildlife Management Areas. These areas have been designated to protect habitat across the range of the spotted owl in British Columbia. The Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship is responsible for developing and implementing a release plan. It is not public, but there is information about protected habitat and other objectives available.
Owl candidates for release are determined months in advance, and based on many factors:
ARTIFICIAL INCUBATIONArtificial incubation allows us to closely monitor the humidity, temperature, and rotations of the eggs in a controlled and clean environment. When spotted owls start laying eggs in March, staff switch them out for “dummy” eggs that the female keeps warm while her eggs are artificially incubated. This respectful transition helps maintain a connection between the female and a future chick, and allows the female to continue her natural behaviours. Staff monitor the development of each egg by “candling” with a flashlight to see the internal structures and adjust incubator settings according to the needs of each egg. By replicating the nurturing conditions that female spotted owls provide, we reduce the risk of breakage and optimize their chances of hatching successfully.
DOUBLE CLUTCHINGDouble clutching maximizes the reproductive potential of each owl while respecting their natural, annual breeding patterns. In the wild, female spotted owls typically only lay 1-3 eggs every spring in a single group or clutch. If a nest fails due to predation or disease, the female will re-nest if there is enough food and time left in the season. We simulate this by artificially incubating all the eggs from the first clutch and creating the opportunity for the female to lay another 1-3 eggs. Double clutching can double the number of eggs, offers new pairs more time to bond successfully, and recognizes the resilience and adaptability of spotted owls.
HAND-RAISINGSpotted owl chicks are hand-raised by trained staff for approximately 10-14 days. Chicks are altricial (born helpless, requiring significant care) and incredibly vulnerable in the first days of their life, so hand-raising allows us to monitor them 24/7, track their growth, and provide care to any struggling or sick individuals. To foster a chick's connection with the land and its relatives, chicks are housed with owl puppets or similarly aged chicks with spotted owl vocalizations and nature sounds playing in the background. Once chicks are strong and healthy, they are returned to a nest so that parent owls can raise the chicks and instill their lifelong teachings. Female spotted owls that are sitting on dummy eggs accept chicks regardless of their age or biological connection. Spotted owls have an innate instinct to care for their young relatives. New families are monitored remotely using our nest cameras. We monitor when a chick is being fed, interactions between a chick and its parents, and developmental milestones - all with minimal disturbance to the owls and their way of life.
Release candidates are between 1-2 years to minimize the risk of habituation (becoming accustomed to humans) and optimize their survival odds. Survivorship is low in juveniles during their first year in the wild since they require more food and disperse to establish their own territories.
SOFT RELEASES & ACCLIMATION
Spotted owl releases are “soft” releases where the owls become familiar with the sights and sounds of their new surroundings in an enclosed aviary at the release site. Aviaries are built similar in size to those at the NSOBP with special consideration to shade availability, proximity to old-growth, prey populations, and security.
Owls are monitored closely and onsite staff provide live food and record behaviours. On release day, aviary doors are opened and the owls can leave at their own pace.
POST RELEASE MONITORING
Before release, owls are weighed and fitted with GPS and Very High Frequency (VHF) radio tags. These tags are incredibly lightweight and do not restrict owl movements or flight.
A field team uses the data from the trackers to locate individuals, learn about their movements, and provide supplemental food if possible.
Spotted owl releases are a monumental team effort, including collaboration and consultation with First Nation communities by the Government of B.C. as we work towards the recovery of spotted owls. Owl husbandry, veterinary medicine, scheduling, logistics, permitting, construction, communications, security, mapping, administration, safety, and so much more are crucial to the release process.
HAVE RELEASES STARTED?
The first release of NSOBP spotted owls occurred in 2022 when three owls were released into protected habitat in the Fraser Canyon, within the traditional territory of the Spô’zêm First Nation. While the owls successfully lived and hunted in their natural habitat for many months, one was injured that October and the other two did not make it through the winter. We are committed to learning and finding meaningful ways to support the owls released into the wild. Releases are ongoing.