COLUMN: Birds in the hand, or in the bush?

Just after Christmas I was driving along Sumas Mountain Road when I noticed, walking along the road ahead of me, a neighbour.

Just after Christmas I was driving along Sumas Mountain Road when I noticed, walking along the road ahead of me, a neighbour. Simultaneously, I was aware of little bits of stuff all over the road.

I stopped, asked the neighbour what was up, and he said “I’ve never seen anything like it … dead birds all over the road.”

That was the “little bits of stuff!”

Out of the truck, and Dave and I went back to inspect the carnage . . . some 30 or 40 dead birds littered the pavement.

He was concerned, since we were near the Kinder Morgan tank farm, that they had ingested (inhaled?) some form of toxic fumes. I was just puzzled.

So we walked among the bodies, some flattened by passing traffic, when I noticed one still in the throes of death. I picked up its little body, along with one obviously dead, and told my neighbour I’d have the situation checked out.

I took the bodies to my vet, who happens to be the one guy you really want when it comes to wild and exotic animals. There are others, but Ken Macquisten is recognized as the “odd animal” expert – former Vancouver Zoo guy, Grouse Mountain grizzly guy, you get the picture – who can give you the answer when you have a question about animals living or dead.

“Well, they’re pine siskins,” he said, “part of the canary family . . . susceptible to salmonella, but I’ve never heard of that many dying at once. I’ll call the provincial lab. Perhaps they can come up with an answer.”

So off to the red/brown complex on DeLair Road just off the freeway, and on Jan. 9 I received an email telling me that, in the necropsy, they determined death by trauma, and suggested that a large truck may have driven at speed through the flock, the downdraft catching and killing the birds by blunt force.

One fast dump truck, a flock of dickie birds dead.

I tell you this only because of the news this week about barred owls and the havoc they are wreaking on spotted owls.

Some 15 years ago another neighbour arrived at my gate with a wounded owl. “I found it on the road, and figured you’d know what to do with it!”

Yep, another visit to my friend Ken: “It’s a barred owl, not a spotted one,” he said to a somewhat disappointed me. I thought I’d found (or at least brought in) a prize.

Back then there were still a fair number of spotted owls – at least 30 breeding pairs. Today, the total population of spotted owls in B.C. is estimated to be only 10 birds, and the very similar-looking barred owls are not only taking over their habitat, they are decimating them – eating their food, eating them, and sending them to oblivion through interbreeding. The poor old spotty, it seems, just can’t win in B.C.

However, as with mountain beaver, the spotted owl is only threatened here in southern B.C.

Again, like the Sonoran Desert which barely intrudes into British Columbia around Osoyoos, the spotted owl and the mountain beaver are barely “indigenous.” South of the border they are common. In fact, in Oregon, spotted owls are thriving, and the mountain beaver abundant. In this painful, rainful climate we suffer, we’re probably all wishing the desert, like the other two, would expand its territory.

Not withstanding this being an environmentalist-driven province, should we really be using expensive or “extermative” ends to preserve something that, other than in the tiny environmental blip that is the Lower Mainland and Fraser Canyon, is commonplace elsewhere?

Do we shoot all the barred owls to save the spotted? Do we ban dump trucks to save pine siskins, or do we let nature take its course?

Me? I favour the latter.