Earth Notes: Mexican Spotted Owls

Jan 3, 2018

Spotted owls have long been known to live in forests. But of the three subspecies in the country, the Colorado Plateau’s Mexican spotted owl also inhabits sheer-walled canyons.

Mexican spotted owl fledgling
Credit Timothy Bowden and Jeremy White

The Mexican spotted owl, the smallest and lightest-colored of the three, ranges from southern Colorado and Utah into Mexico. It thrives in various habitats—among pines in the mountains, oak woodlands at mid-elevations, and cottonwoods and sycamores along desert rivers.

In the canyon country, these raptors hunt as silently as shadows—capturing woodrats, canyon mice, and even a bat or two below the rims. Young downy owlets wait for an evening feast in nests high on ledges, with stunted pinyon and junipers softening the canyon floor below.

All three kinds of spotted owls rely on forest structure for nesting, roosting, and cover—except Mexican spotted owls. They need trees too, but among the cliffs and rock walls of canyons they find protection from aerial attacks by deadly great-horned owls and red-tailed hawks. Caves in cliff faces also provide dry roosts, much like hollows in trees.

All three subspecies are listed as threatened. But despite their protected status, their populations are declining due to logging and wildfires, insect outbreaks in forests, and competition with barred owls.

The Colorado Plateau's canyons are less prone to some of these threats, and may provide a genetic pocket for long-term survival of the diminutive Mexican spotted owl.