Owls have a power to fascinate us that no other birds do. They seem to dwell in a realm that lies somewhere between the natural and the mythological, representing a wilderness untamed and untouched by human hands. When you chance upon one and stare into the solemn, unsettling eyes of a Barred Owl or the bright, glaring yellow eyes of a Great Horned Owl, you know you are in the presence of something utterly inhuman – and inhumanly beautiful. These sleek, silent, feathered predators captivate our imaginations, possibly because they are so infrequently seen, and possibly because of the aura of mystery that surrounds them…especially those that dwell in the woods where their cryptic camouflage and nocturnal habits make them difficult to spot.
While some eastern North American owls remain on their breeding territories all year round, including the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl and Barred Owl, other species are migratory and may be found more easily in the fall and winter as they move through urban and suburban areas to their wintering grounds. These species, which include Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the four northern species – Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl – typically move south in response to food shortages on their breeding grounds or, in the case of last winter’s spectacular Snowy Owl irruption, a population boom that led to an increase in competition for the same food resources. Younger owls, having no territories of their own, were pushed much farther south than normal in order to find a place to spend the winter.
Snowy Owls can be found in Ottawa’s outlying agricultural areas almost every year, while Northern Hawk Owls seem to show up every two or three years. Great Gray Owls and Boreal Owls occur here much more infrequently – perhaps once every four or five years. Any time these owls are discovered overwintering here it creates a stir. Sometimes the owls are seen in one spot one day and disappear the next, while other times they may spend more than a month in the same area. The longer an owl stays in one place, the more vulnerable it becomes to being discovered – by those who, out of respect for a bird which may be struggling to survive the winter in an unfamiliar place, do not report the bird or make its location publicly known, or by those who are thrilled to see such a magnificent creature and decide to share the sighting with others so that they, too, may be able to enjoy seeing a rare owl.
The issue of whether to publicize the location of overwintering owls has become a hotly debated topic in many states and provinces. Birdwatching and bird photography have increased in popularity in recent years, and more and more people are willing to drive great distances to catch a glimpse of a rare northern owl. This can result in large crowds gathering around owls, and while most people are respectful of the bird’s personal space, all too often there are a few who try to get too close to the bird for a better look or a better photo, cause it to flush, or chase it. When this happens repeatedly, several times a day for several days or weeks, it causes the bird to expend unnecessary energy, adds to the stress the bird already faces in trying to survive, and puts the owl’s very survival at risk.
Owls that sleep during the day – such as Boreal Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl – are more likely to suffer from repeated disturbances than owls which hunt during the day. Birders or photographers who are too loud, approach too closely, or toss objects at the owl so that it will open its eyes cost the bird the rest it needs in order to hunt effectively the following night. Further, an owl that is awakened and flushes in alarm loses the heat energy it would otherwise conserve while fluffed up and asleep. Repeated disturbances day in and day out often may eventually prove fatal – either through starvation or predation by larger owls.
Some owls, such as the Long-eared Owl, need thick stands of conifer trees for their roosts. If repeatedly disturbed, they may leave an optimal roost site for one with less cover where they may face even more harassment by crows or large crowds of people. Even worse, they may be discovered by Barred or Great Horned Owls and become easy prey for these larger species.
Sometimes the repeated flushing of a bird may lead directly to its death. In 2008, a rare Burrowing Owl appeared on a beach in Chicago, Michigan. A large number of people showed up and repeatedly caused it to flush from the vegetation in order to see it. It didn’t take long before the Burrowing Owl was caught and eaten by a Cooper’s Hawk before horrified onlookers.
Many new birders and photographers who approach an owl too closely, disturb it while it is sleeping, or pursue it when it flies off simply aren’t aware that there are laws against harassing birds. In Ontario, as in many other states and provinces, it is illegal to chase and harass birds. If caught, the Minister of Natural Resources will lay charges. In addition, many birding and photography organizations have a clearly defined Code of Ethics for the safe and responsible viewing of wildlife. The ABA, OFO, OFNC, and many wildlife photography sites and organizations publish such Codes of Ethics on their websites. Many of these codes emphasize learning about the species being photographed or observed, keeping disturbance to a minimum, considering the circumstances carefully before releasing information about the location of rare birds, and always putting the welfare of the birds or animals first.
These days, in Ontario (at least), revealing the location of a rare northern owl will almost certainly result in hordes of people showing up. When a Great Gray Owl appeared in Kingsville (Essex County) last winter, birders came from Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire, and all over southern Ontario in order to see it. While many reports indicate that the observers were behaving respectfully, there were still complaints of people blocking the road with their vehicles, trespassing, setting up their tripods in the middle of the road, and even luring it to the side of the road with a frozen squirrel. A former biologist working in Algonquin Provincial Park notes that a family of Great Gray Owls may have been driven out of its nesting and feeding habitat by large numbers of people who went off-trail to photograph the fledglings. Similarly, a group of Long-eared Owls discovered in Ottawa disappeared after being mobbed by large numbers of people daily – although I’d heard about the owls, I never went to see them because I’d heard that all the attention was having a negative impact on the birds.
Two years ago, the situation at Owl Woods on Amherst Island had become so bad that the owners considered closing it to the public. People were using noise devices to get the owls to open their eyes, cutting tree branches to get unobstructed photos of the owls, throwing things at the owls, shaking the trees in which they roosted, and trespassing on private property while the woods were closed for deer hunting. Instead of closing the woods, however, the landowners put rules in place in order to minimize the impact visitors have on the owls. These rules ask observers to:
- Keep a minimum distance of five metres from owls
- Be silent; speak in whispers.
- Do not linger in front of an owl more than a couple of minutes.
- If you cause an owl to fly, do not pursue it.
- Do not bait owls with rodents.
- No flash photography allowed.
- No sound devices allowed.
- Stay on trails and do not remove branches or vegetation.
- Do not report owl sightings on the internet or birding hotlines.
Tommy Thompson Park, another spot known as a wintering site for many species of owls, followed suit in 2012 with a very similar set of rules after consulting scientific literature and various owl management strategies.
In setting out his reasons for instituting a new Owl Viewing and Reporting Policy, the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station Coordinator relates a story in his blog post (see link above) of one Snowy Owl that spent the winter in Michigan. So many birders and photographers went to see it that complaints of harassment arose. People were accused of literally surrounding the owl, flushing the owl into traffic, and trespassing onto private property in order to get better photos. Attempts to ask people to keep a respectful distance were met with opposition. Instead, people justified their actions by stating how healthy the owl seemed to be and that the owl’s “behavior of flying around was a result of it being in good health and exploring its surroundings”. However, by early spring the owl had died of malnutrition. Whether or not the daily harassment by large groups of people caused the owl’s death is unknown. However, they certainly interfered with the owl’s ability to hunt successfully and caused it to waste precious energy in evading their advances. This is not an isolated case. A similar situation arose in Boston when a Snowy Owl that had been baited with live mice all winter had similarly been found dead of starvation in the spring.
Even with the carnival atmosphere that develops around owls discovered overwintering in Ontario, many people still make the locations of owls public by posting reports to eBird and Ontbirds. While it is the OFO’s position that owls can be viewed responsibly without harm to birds, the fact that those responsible for Tommy Thompson Park and Owl Woods on Amherst Island have asked people to not report owls found on these properties, and the decision of the OFNC to no longer mention owls on its bird status line make it clear that there is an ongoing concern about the lack of respect shown to the owls, their habitat, and other observers by a growing number of people. Even eBird has had to post guidelines on the reporting of sensitive species, suggesting that individuals wait until the season is over and the bird has left before entering it into eBird, avoid giving specific coordinates when mapping the location, and “hiding” checklists in eBird after they have been submitted. Even delaying entering a species or a checklist by one week will help by keeping the reports off the ‘eBird Notable Birds feed’.
There is no question that the lack of consideration for the birds’ welfare and behaviour that would certainly be described as harassment by the MNR has worsened in recent years. Even worse, attempts to educate people on the potential harm they are causing usually meet with willful resistance. Anecdotal evidence, such as the stories noted above, and the opinions of ornithologists, biologists and other experts (for example, a US Fish and Wildlife biologist, a bird rehabilitator, and a member of Cornell Lab of Ornithology) are dismissed; people want hard evidence, studies, papers published in scientific journals – which, of course, do not (yet) exist. In the meantime, anecdotal evidence is growing and is being documented by birders, bloggers and photographers alike. People are posting photos and videos online which show the harassment of Great Gray Owls in Ottawa and Snowy Owls in Boundary Bay, B.C., Breezy Point, NY and southern Quebec, while many listservs are engaged in heated debates on the issue of whether to report owls.
While it would be wonderful if everyone could enjoy watching and photographing the owls from a respectable distance, refrain from baiting and playing recordings of bird calls, and to limit the time they spend near the owls, the sad truth is that some people feel entitled rather than privileged when it comes to viewing owls. These are the people that need to get within ten feet of the owl in order to photograph it (even if they have a lens as long as my forearm), to relentlessly pursue it when it flies off, and to spend hour after hour, day after day doing this. This not only sets a bad example to new birders and photographers who may not know better and encourages a “mob” mentality to follow suit, but ruins the experience for those who want to view the owl respectfully – something that has happened to me twice now when I went to see the overwintering Great Gray Owls at Green’s Creek (more on that to follow shortly). I find I derive more enjoyment from finding my own owls, and observing them peacefully without a mob of people gathered around. I have stopped mentioning the specific locations of any owls that I find personally in my blog, “hide” these observations in eBird, and wait at least a week before reporting them in either place. While I think it’s sad that such measures must be taken, ultimately I believe it’s best for the owls – and that the owls’ welfare takes precedence over everything else.