WASHINGTON -- What do you get when you cross a northern spotted owl with a barred owl?
Scientists in the Pacific Northwest call it a 'sparred owl.' But they aren't sure whether the cross-breed is merely a quirk of nature or a potential genetic threat to the spotted owl, officially recognized in June as in danger of extinction.
Two live specimens of the hybrid were confirmed by wildlife biologists this summer in the dense woods of Washington state and Oregon.
At first glance, the hybrid resembles both the spotted owl, a threatened species that primarily inhabits older forests of the Northwest, and the barred owl, a cousin common to much of North America.
On closer inspection, however, the sparred owl exhibits physical markings, calls and other characteristics that combine the traits of the two parent species.
'The tail feathers are like a barred owl and the breast feathers are like a spotted owl. The characteristics are intermediate,' said Eric Forsman, a research biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Corvallis, Ore.
Both hybrids were males found roosting with female barred owls. The first, originally thought to be a spotted owl, was identified as a cross-breed last month near Mount Baker in the northern Cascades range of Washington.
The second was found the first week of August about 600 miles away near Medford, Ore. This cross-breed and its barred owl mate have produced offspring, making the new generation 'three-quarters barred and one-quarter spotted owl,' Forsman said in a telephone interview.
The hybrid discovery could alter the equation for the spotted owl, a species already deemed threatened by the loss of its habitat to logging, said David Clinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland.
Cross-breeding on a wide scale might eventually diminish the spotted owl's tenuous gene pool, complicating efforts to protect the bird, Clinger said.
However, Forsman said he saw little evidence of an imminent hybridization threat to the spotted owl.
'We've only seen two records of this thing happening,' he said. 'At this point, it appears to be pretty rare.'
For the moment, the greater potential threat to the spotted owl is competition with the barred owl for its dwindling habitat, Forsman said.
The barred owl historically has been found all across the eastern United States and southern Canada, expanding its range in the last 30 years through British Columbia and into Washington, Oregon and northern California, Forsman said.
Less particular about its habitat than its spotted cousin, the barred owl is now invading old-growth forests in the Northwest 'occupied historically only by spotted owls,' he said.
In any case, researchers tramping through the forests of the Northwest taking inventory of spotted owls and their nesting sites must now take care to avoid confusing spotted and sparred owls, he said.
The spotted owl gets its name from distinctive white spots on the top of its head, while the head of the cross-breed is marked by white crescents or rectangles, Forsman said.
The sparred owl even sounds like a mixture of the parent species -- a composite of the four-note territorial call of the spotted owl and an eight-note vocalization of the barred owl, Forsman said.
'This is going to make the research we're doing a little more complicated,' he said.