As biologist Jasmine McCulligh walks a visitor through the incubation room at the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Centre in Langley Township, she smiles as she surveys the machines that keep freshly laid eggs at an ideal temperature.
“This is very cool,” she says.
“Nobody in the world is breeding spotted owls. This is it.”
For the last 10 years, the people at the non-profit centre have been trying to save the northern spotted owl from extinction by breeding them in captivity for eventual release back into the wild.
McCulligh estimates there are fewer than 20 of the owls left in the wild, the result of losing old-growth forest habitat.
The incubation room is where, after 32 days, the biologists and interns will spend several days watching the chicks slowly break free of the eggs.
“Thats when you start getting nervous, but excited at the same time,” say McCulligh (pictured).
“We sit here for up to 88 hours.”
For the first 10 days of their life, the chicks are hand-raised then given over to a foster parent — a female owl that has been sitting on dummy eggs.
“At 10 days their eyes open and we want them imprinted on an owl, not a person,” McCulligh explains.
By incubating the eggs, the females are more likely to lay a second set, thus increasing the potential number of chicks.
It takes a long time to bring a near-extinct species back from the brink.
Currently there are 17 spotted owls at the centre, a sprawling 25-acre compound of spacious breeding enclosures.
The goal is to have the baby owls return to the wild, ideally producing 10 to 20 young each year that will be released into over 200,000 hectares of protected old-growth forest in the Pemberton area.
The program has been managed and delivered with financial support from the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (www.fwcp.ca), a partnership to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife between BC Hydro, the provincial government, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations and other stakeholders.
This year, the Langley breeding program marked a major milestone with the birth of its first second-generation owl.
The egg was produced by Shania, who was Canada’s first captive-bred spotted owl born at centre in 2008.
On April 22 of this year, a healthy male owl pecked its way out of Shania’s egg.
It was an especially significant development, because it showed that the spotted owl can pair bond, reproduce and rear their young in captivity.
Up till now, the centre has not been open to the public. There have been tours, but they have been limited to supporters of the program.
But now, after a decade of near-anonymity, that policy has been relaxed, ever so slightly, in order to get the word out.
“We’ve been in the community for 10 years, but so few people know about us,” McCulligh says.
“We want people in Langley and the Lower Mainland to know we are here.”
This fall, the centre experimented with allowing small groups of people to take closely supervised tours of the facility.
The visits were scheduled well in advance and no drop-ins were permitted.
All of the available slots for the two-hour tours filled up quickly, by word of mouth alone.
The centre is now preparing to schedule more tours by the general public in the New Year and again, the numbers will be limited.
Those interested in a close-up view of the program can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
People who wish to volunteer can also contact the program at that address.
There is a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nsobreedingprogram/ and people can donate to the program there.