Owl baiting is the feeding of live mice, usually bought from pet stores, to wild owls with the purpose of obtaining photographs of the owl in flight or making the kill. It is not “feeding” the owl, otherwise people would simply let a whole box of mice loose in the field every day and leave, allowing the owl to find and catch them on its own. Instead, the mice are released one at a time, allowing those photographing it to capture dramatic images of the owl flying in and swooping down on its prey.
In early January, four Great Gray Owls were discovered on NCC land near Green’s Creek in Ottawa’s east end. Although the presence of these birds was kept quiet at first, eventually a local photographer saw or heard about them and sent a barrage of emails to Ontbirds which not only gave precise details on how to get to the owls, but also a Google map of the area, a link to the Ottawa Citizen in which he had been quoted, and, of course, links to his photos. The result of this email campaign was entirely predictable: dozens of people began showing up at the site, and the baiting began.
The first thing I want to state, right up front, is that owl baiting is NOT illegal in Ontario. This has been made clear by the Ministry of Natural Resources and NCC conservation officers when questioned about this practice.
The second point I want to make clear is that not all photographers use store-bought rodents to capture photos of owls hunting; in fact, I doubt even most of them do. Many photographers have the skill, the patience, and the luck to get great pictures of owls catching voles and other wild rodents naturally, and kudos to them. The ones who bait either don’t have patience or are looking for an easy way to get the same stunning photos.
The third thing I want to state is that I don’t condone owl baiting, and I don’t think it’s right from a moral or ethical point of view. After reading through – and being part of – a number of arguments online, I tried to figure out why exactly I have such a negative reaction to the issue of owl baiting. What it boils down to, for me, is that it says a photograph has more value than the life of the mouse or even the owl itself. It shows little respect for the owl by turning it into a circus performer and none for the mouse whose life has been sacrificed. But that’s just my opinion.
I was extremely disappointed both times that I went to Green’s Creek. The first time I went was on a beautiful, cold, sunny morning in late January. Upon arriving I heard that two owls had been hunting in the open, but had retreated into the woods after being fed a couple of mice. One owl was still visible at the tree line; I approached within a respectful distance and took a couple of photos with my 20x zoom camera. There were only about five other photographers close by, as the remainder – about 20 or 30 altogether – were still a good distance away in the field. However, several of them were walking toward the owl with their equipment. As the crowd drew nearer the owl lifted its tail, defecated, and flew deeper into the woods. To my surprise, two of the closer photographers followed the owl into the woods.
I had been there all of five minutes and now there were no owls in sight. I was relieved I had missed the baiting, but I was unhappy that I had no chance whatsoever of being able to observe these marvelous owls hunting naturally out in the open. So I left.
I returned a week later with Deb on a snowy Sunday morning. As we walked the kilometer down the road from the parking lot we met two other birders (as evidenced by their binoculars) returning to their cars. One said that three of the owls were in view, but that he had left the scene because the owls were actively being baited. We didn’t bother to ask the second birder about the owls, figuring we would see for ourselves in just a moment.
When we arrived we found two groups of people. The first group consisted of about 15 people scattered across a small area, staring into the woods after an owl that just flown off. A larger group of about 30 people were clustered together much deeper in the field. Both groups had been releasing mice for the owls to catch. Deb and I walked over to the larger group and found a Great Gray Owl sitting in a tree just in front of the tree line.
Most of the photographers were hunkered low in the snow, while a few others were watching from the side. All of a sudden the Great Gray Owl left its perch and floated gracefully and silently to the ground. I was so awed by the scene I didn’t even think of raising my camera. The owl sat on the snow for a minute, looking around, then reached in between its talons with its beak. When it came up with a white mouse in its mouth I realized what had happened. I never saw the photographer release the mouse, but the owl must have seen it clearly from its perch.
The owl flew just inside the woods with its catch. I didn’t follow, so I don’t know whether it ate it or cached it for later. About seven minutes later, it flew back out to the same tree in front of the woods. It sat there for a moment and then flew down to pick up another mouse. He stood on it for a moment, then reached down and picked it up in its mouth.
I didn’t see the release of the second mouse, either. I don’t know whether the owl flew out of the woods onto the tree branch like an over-sized chickadee because it expected the photographers to give it more food, or if the photographers released the mouse first and the owl came out when it heard or saw it.
According to the time stamp on my photos, the second mouse was captured eight minutes after the first one.
Deb and I left after that as we both felt soiled by what we had observed and didn’t want to see any more. Instead of being able to quietly enjoy watching the owls in a natural setting, behaving as wild owls do, I felt as though we had attended a photo shoot where the owls had been turned into trained performers that existed only for the photographers’ gratification. This cheapened my entire experience with the owl. I was also disturbed by the utter callousness of sacrificing live, sentient animals for the sake of a photo. Mice feel both fear and pain, and I’m sure they suffer from both when they are suddenly released onto a cold, snowy plain with no cover and seized by the owl. Should they escape, there is a high chance that they will die of exposure.
While the practice of baiting is undoubtedly cruel to the mice, there is also evidence that it harms the owl. Although some people state that baiting can be done “responsibly” (i.e. far back from any roads, by one person releasing only a few mice using a device that prevents the owl from associating the mice with humans), the majority of the baiting that I’ve seen or read about involves crowds of people spending hour after hour with the owl for days and weeks on end. While it is true that no scientific studies have been conducted on the consequences of baiting, anecdotal evidence suggests that this type of baiting is dangerous for the following reasons.
1. Baiting changes the behaviour of the owl.
Owls are intelligent creatures, and if they are regularly fed by humans, they may come to associate humans with food and even develop a dependency upon them. I have read about owls that have become habituated to people, lost their normal fear of them, and have followed cars looking for food.
The baiting of a Snowy Owl currently in St. Catharines has prompted a Vineland-based raptor rescue group to speak out publicly against the practice. They say that feeding the owl with mice can adversely affect how it hunts. A ready, easy food supply means the owl could get lazy and lose its predatory edge, making it vulnerable if it goes elsewhere.
In one online forum, someone mentions that the Department of Natural Resources is looking after an owl that stopped hunting. The photographers stopped feeding it after getting their photos, and when they returned later with a new photographer they found the owl on the ground, too weak to fly. Although the owl is now healthy, it can’t be released back into the wild because it won’t be able to feed itself.
A friend from the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club who studied classical conditioning in university told me that the strongest reward is an inconsistent one. If an owl is baited every day, it will not expect people to bring it food if, after a day or two, nobody shows up with any mice. The owl will hunt for food on its own or, if there is no natural prey in the area, it will move on. However, an inconsistent feeding schedule may make the owl believe that if it waits a bit longer, it will be fed eventually. This may prevent the owl from leaving an area with too little prey to sustain it and eventually cause its demise.
Conversely, a regular feeding schedule may prevent the owl from flying north when it is supposed to. A zoologist with The Owl Foundation has stated that feeding the St. Catharines Snowy Owl may cause him to stay in the area longer than it should. In Minnesota, a Boreal Owl that showed up at Springbrook Park in January, 1997 never flew back north because the park staff provided food on a regular schedule late into March. They believed they were helping the owl and were so delighted by the attention the owl received from the public that they even provided an artificial platform where the owl could fly down and catch the mice in front of the crowd of birders and photographers.
In another discussion, someone mentions that raptors and owls have attacked humans in order to elicit food after becoming habituated to them through baiting. He notes that several owls in BC had to be put down for repeatedly attacking humans after they had been baited by photographers. He was personally involved in two cases in Nanaimo in 1998 and 2001, both of which involved Barred Owls. He also notes that he has heard stories of Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Bald Eagles attacking people in B.C. after being fed and that he once saw a Short-eared Owl killed by a Peregrine Falcon while the owl feasted in the open on a domestic rabbit tethered there by a photographer.
I have also heard stories about owls in Illinois, B.C. and Ontario approaching people and cars looking for food. A Northern Hawk Owl at Harrington Beach State Park, Wisconsin became so used to people bringing it mice that it would swoop down right next to cars along the road.
Ottawa-based birder and photographer Tony Beck has his own story to tell of a Snowy Owl in Casselman that became habituated to people. In January 2009, Tony was leading a birding group and stopped on Concession Road 20 near the corner of Highway 8 to scan the roadside for Snowy Owls. To his delight, a Snowy Owl flew out of the field and landed on a utility pole right in front of his group. He thought this was a little strange at first, but the group spent an enjoyable 15 minutes photographing it. He then left to continue exploring the area, and drove east along Concession Road 20 for about 1.5 km. He got out of the car to scan for more Snowy Owls, only to see the first Snowy flying up the road and land on a utility pole right beside him. Becoming concerned about the owl’s behaviour, he and his group immediately returned to their cars, and drove away. They turned south along St. Rose Road, continuing about another 1.5 km. Again when they got out of the car they found that the same Snowy Owl had followed them, landing in the corn field right beside them. Tony says the bird showed no fear, and that his group was able to walk right up to this bird despite having no food to offer the bird. Tony also says that they never once observed it hunting on its own.
2. Baiting introduces prey that is does not naturally occur in the ecosystem.
Animal cruelty isn’t the only issue. When baiting an owl with pet store mice, photographers are releasing animals into an ecosystem that don’t belong there. This may result in the establishment of a new population of an exotic species or introduce harmful diseases to the native fauna if they survive. While many pet stores sell only clean, healthy animals, there is no way to be sure that mice raised in captivity are completely safe. A Milwaukee zookeeper has expressed concerns that store-bought mice may contain parasites, while the “Dr. Ruth of Ornithology”, Laura Erickson, raises the point that store-bought mice may carry salmonella. She notes in a blog post that the CDC has reported cases of people getting sick from salmonella as a result of handling mice from Minnesota pet shops. In another instance, a rehabilitation center unwittingly provided a bad batch of live rodents to their clinic birds and a Bald Eagle used for educational purposes. The rodents were diseased and several birds perished, including the eagle. This particular center now removes the intestines from prey food to prevent diseases like salmonella.
3. Baiting near a road increases the risk that the owl will be hit by a car.
A Montreal birder reports that a Northern Hawk Owl which had taken up residence next to a busy road was killed by a truck after it attempted to catch a mouse released by a photographer. Another Northern Hawk Owl in Orillia was hit by a vehicle after photographers began baiting it. Although it is conjecture on the poster’s part, he believes that something has brought the owl close to the road as it had spent most of its time hunting in the field where the voles were. There are other cases of owls striking vehicles in B.C. and in Sax-Zim bog after photographers used bait thrown from cars to attract them.
A French documentary about owl baiting in Quebec highlights some of the injuries veterinarians have seen in owls that have been hit by cars. This video has been posted on a couple of photography websites, including this one.
4. The constant attention may be stressful for a bird trying to survive in a new environment.
This topic does not apply just to photographers who bait owls, but to large crowds that gather around owls in general. I felt it worth bringing up here because many of the photographers who do bait owls usually do it in groups, for hours at a time. A lot of the owls that migrate south in the winter are already stressed and exhausted; several end up needing to be rescued because the harassment weakens them further. Getting too close or spending too much time in their presence may interfere with the owls’ ability to sleep or hunt without distractions. Then there are those who deliberately attempt to flush an owl and pursue it when it flies off. In the comment section of this story, a member of O.W.L. (Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society) in B.C. notes that it’s very important for people to realize that many signs of stress aren’t visible and that they should keep a respectful distance from any wildlife, even if they seem ‘relaxed’.
A Great Gray Owl died in Maine after a solid week of people chasing it and interfering with its hunting habits. The wildlife rehabilitator called in to rescue it said it was severely emaciated but was unable to save it. A similar situation occurred in B.C. with a Northern Hawk Owl.
Baiting is clearly cruel the mouse and has resulted in owls coming to harm. However, there is a third species that it affects, one that gets very little consideration in this debate – other people, in particular the birders and photographers who do not wish to see the baiting or be a part of it. Neither the initial emails to Ontbirds nor the article in the Ottawa Citizen mentioned that photographers were baiting the owl. I expect many birders and photographers who came from far away hoping to see an owl behaving naturally in the wild ended up feeling disappointed with their experience. Similarly, I wonder if those who visited solely because of the Ottawa Citizen article and saw the baiting now believe that this is how all birders and photographers behave or how all photographers obtain their flight shots.
What is sad, to me, is that the people involved in the baiting greatly outnumber the people who are against it at the site and have taken ownership of the owls. Several birders whom I know personally have left after only spending a few minutes there and have no plans on returning. While a few have spoken out publicly against the baiting, most haven’t. A fellow blogger who feels that baiting is disrespectful notes that she can’t bring herself to go back to see them because in her view, that would make her just like the rest of the paparazzi. Another person wrote on an online forum that she was disappointed with the whole experience, from the photographers were bossy and rude, to the garbage left behind from the baiting. She notes that she spoke with people from New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Guelph and Montreal, and says that all of them were left with a bad taste in their mouths from the experience.
A friend of mine, Suzanne, left a comment in my previous journal entry stating that it’s a “real circus out at Green’s Creek” now and that she doesn’t plan to go back. And she’s saddened that there’s no chance to watch the owls hunting naturally for food since they’re being baited all the time. After discussing it with her further, she said the worst part for her personally was how the mice were treated. Yes, owls naturally hunt rodents. Yes, it’s part of nature. But in her view, it takes a certain level of callousness for a human being to take a live mouse by the tail, dangle it to catch the owls’ attention, then literally hurl it onto the snow. She said the mice were clearly pet-trade mice that didn’t know what to do with themselves in the wild, because they just sort of stumbled about, confused, probably freezing. And then, if that didn’t get the owls’ attention, someone would go pick it up and throw it again. She found the casual objectification stomach-turning.
Then there’s the whole argument that feeding the owls helps them to survive the winter. While at Green’s Creek the second time, both Deb and I heard someone say the owls would starve if they didn’t feed them. Obviously no one knows whether the Green’s Creek area has a sufficient number of rodents to keep the owls well-fed since mice, voles, weasels and other animals spend the winter in the subnivean layer beneath the snow. I have heard people say they have witnessed the owls hunting voles without being baited. If this is true, and there is food available, why can the photographers not be content with photographing the owls hunting on their own? Surely by being patient they can get their highly-prized flight shots. However, if it’s not true, and there is insufficient prey in the area, why are the photographers keeping them there by constantly feeding them instead of allowing them to move on to a better area where there is more prey? Either way the answer seems to put the photographers’ gratification ahead of the owls’ well-being.
After reading so many sad stories on the internet, I don’t think anyone can say that no owl has ever become habituated to people after being baited excessively. Nor can anyone say that no owl has ever lost its life after being baited. I think there is enough anecdotal evidence available showing that we can never be certain that baiting owls will not put them at risk, especially when the baiting takes place over an extended period of time. Surely something that causes so much disagreement between people who profess to love birds and nature cannot be entirely good for the owls. If there is even the slightest chance that an owl will come to harm through baiting, wouldn’t it be best to simply allow it to hunt and feed without our interference?