Invader removal triggers competitive release in a threatened avian predator


Wiens, Dugger, Higley et al.


June 1, 2021


Wiens, J. D., K. M. Dugger, J. M. Higley, D. B. Lesmeister, A. B. Franklin, K. A. Hamm, G. C. White, K. E. Dilione, D. C. Simon, R. R. Bown, P. C. Carlson, C. B. Yackulic, J. D. Nichols, J. E. Hines, R. J. Davis, D. W. Lamphear, C. McCafferty, T. L. McDonald, and S. G. Sovern (2021). “Invader removal triggers competitive release in a threatened avian predator”. In: PNAS 118.31, p. e2102859118. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2102859118.


invasive species, removal experiment, population dynamics, competition, Strix owls


Changes in the distribution and abundance of invasive species can have far-reaching ecological consequences. Programs to control invaders are common but gauging the effectiveness of such programs using carefully controlled, large-scale field experiments is rare, especially at higher trophic levels. Experimental manipulations coupled with long-term demographic monitoring can reveal the mechanistic underpinnings of interspecific competition among apex predators and suggest mitigation options for invasive species. We used a large-scale before-after control-impact removal experiment to investigate the effects of an invasive competitor, the barred owl (Strix varia), on the population dynamics of an iconic old-forest native species, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Removal of barred owls had a strong, positive effect on survival of sympatric spotted owls and a weaker but positive effect on spotted owl dispersal and recruitment. After removals, the estimated mean annual rate of population change for spotted owls stabilized in areas with removals (0.2% decline per year), but continued to decline sharply in areas without removals (12.1% decline per year). The results demonstrated that the most substantial changes in population dynamics of northern spotted owls over the past two decades were associated with the invasion, population expansion, and subsequent removal of barred owls. Our study provides experimental evidence of the demographic consequences of competitive release, where a threatened avian predator was freed from restrictions imposed on its population dynamics with the removal of a competitively dominant invasive species.


Winner of The Wildlife Society’s 2022 Wildlife Publications Award in the Outstanding Article/Journal Paper Category

Lay reader summary and press release