Owl baiting. These two words cause more arguments between birders and bird photographers than any others.
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?
What an interesting article, I’ve never heard of this before. How widespread is the practice (you mentioned it wasn’t illegal in Ontario, in what states are they illegal)?
I am not sure if baiting is illegal in the States since I’ve found references to it occurring in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. You would have to check with someone versed in U.S. law to find out.
Thanks for reading!
“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.
Totally 100% unsupported comment. Boreal Owls started calling on territory that year in Minnesota in April. The bird at Springbrook and others that were seen that year in the twin cities all stayed into March and all left within a few days of each other.
If you click on the link embedded in that paragraph, it will take you to an email from Michael Hendrickson to the Minnesota Birds listserv in which he says: “…this owl was getting fat on free mice and it never made it north.” That was the basis for my statement; it is not “totally 100% unsupported” as you claim.
If you meant that my paragraph was 100% untrue, I freely admit that I cannot speak to the veracity of Mr. Hendrickson’s claim. However, the fact that he is a professional bird guide who has sat on the Minnesota Ornithologist Union board gives him credibility and adds weight to his statement. The fact that felt compelled to publicly write of his experiences to the MOU made it compelling to me and worth including in this post. If you have specific knowledge that his statement is untrue, then I’d be happy to consider it.
Just to repeat what I said by email, thank you for this. It’s obvious a lot of work and thought went into it, not to mention the guts to come forward with a message that won’t be popular with everyone. I hope people listen.
Thanks for this, Suzanne, and thank you for providing me with your thoughts and comments – much appreciated!
Again, you did a LOT of work on this Gillian, and it is appreciated! A considerably less lengthy & less detailed article I wrote for OFO News in 2008 (reprinted in OFNC Trail & Landscape in 2011) also generated some feedback re: “anecdotal info” vs. “scientific proof” that wildlife is “not being harmed” by baiting or other manipulation of natural behaviour. But alas, things seem to have gotten much worse since then. Good on you for puttin’ it down….again.
Thanks Chris. I remember that article you wrote…I think it asked what birds and Britney Spears had in common!
I understand the difference between anecdotal evidence and scientific proof; however, I think there are simply too many stories out there about owls coming to harm or becoming habituated to humans to dismiss them simply because they aren’t scientific studies. From the responses I’ve read on Facebook and other threads discussing baiting, it seems as though people have chosen to ignore these stories and everything that bird rehabilitators, biologists, zoologists and the like say because there is no evidence of harm. That said, there is a difference between having no proof because a study wasn’t done, and having no proof because a study actually shows owls aren’t harmed by baiting. We simply just don’t know what happens when owls that have become habituated fly back north in the spring.
GREAT article/post indeed!! It’s a real shame what some so-called ethical photographers will do to get these now easily explained stellar shots….all hoping to make the front cover of a major magazine. What I find additionally disturbing is the fact that these major wildlife magazines are just fine with placing these shots on the front cover. I’m not saying this is always the case but it would now certainly explain the “how did they get that shot” question. It’s a real shame knowing that some of the major mags are just fine with this practice…for them to play the “ignorance” card here is insulting.
Robert, some magazines are not o.k. with it. I recently wrote to a well-known Canadian nature magazine and pointed out an obvious baited Great Gray Owl by a photographer that is known for baiting. The editor was not pleased and said he would discuss it with the photographer. That would be good. The bad, of course, is that these editors don’t seem to recognize these shots in the first place. I hope in time people just get bored of them. They’ve become ubiquitous.
Thanks for reading, Robert!
Owl flight shots are certainly becoming more and more common, not just in major magazines, but in online forums that don’t pay anything, such as the Weather Network’s viewer photos and photography forums. They’ve saturated the market, so to speak, and I feel bad for the true nature photographers that don’t need to bait wildlife to get their shots.
All the best,
Gillian this is a great piece. I have witnessed, but not actively participated in baiting for short periods 3 times. I tried to assess the activity objectively as a biologist. In two instances the owls caught and ate the prey quickly. On the third time the baiters had thrown up to 3 mice onto the snow at once. The owls appear to be full because they barely paid attention to the bait.
I personally know many fellow photographers, whom I consider good friends, who bait and I honestly believe that they do not see any harm in in their actions. They also would not knowingly harm their subjects. I cannot say the same for at least some of the other baiters.
That being said I think that we all need to consider the cumulative impact of this activity on these birds particularly the owls at Green’s Creek. These birds have been baited multiple times per day for several weeks. They must be conditioned to associate humans with food by now! What the long term impact of that conditioning will be on the owls I don’t know.
Early in the season I was fortunate enough to be at Green’s Creek and got a sequence of images of a Great Grey Owl turn in mid-flight and dive into the snow to try and catch a wild mouse or vole. Unfortunately the owl got nothing for its effort. Although most of my shots show the owl with clipped wings I was thrilled to watch and photograph this beautiful owl hunting naturally.
I have not been back to Green’s Creek for several weeks nor will I again. I have some wonderful images and memories of these beautiful birds so I will do my part now to live them in peace.
Good to hear from you! I think you’ve said it best with your statement about the cumulative impact on these birds. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be, but some of the stories I’ve read while researching this post really distressed me – especially one where an owl rehabilitator in Delta, BC said a Northern Hawk Owl was killed by stress after thousands of people went to see it. She said the owl never even had time to hunt. We really do need to consider the impact we have and, as Chris T. says, give the birds the benefit of the doubt if we don’t know how our actions will ultimately affect them.
It also shocks me to hear that people are just throwing the mice out onto the snow as if they are throwing apples to a deer. How is that not animal cruelty?
All the best,
Mike Runtz and I were out birding on Thursday the 21st; we were looking for a variety of birds, especially diurnal and dusk-hunting owls like Short-eared, Great Gray’s, and Northern Hawk Owl
At one of the locations that we were surveying, we spotted three people (two men and one woman) who were standing in the middle of a field. Mike pointed out “props” like tree branches, stumps, set in in the field. We also watched the woman placing objects on the ground. I leaned in towards Mike and said I didn’t want to witness seeing an owl (which would have been an Ottawa lifer – # 204 if it were a Northern Hawk Owl or a Short-eared Owl) under such circumstances. We were about to carry on but then we noticed the woman walking towards us, so, we stayed in place to see what she was up to. As she was walking towards us, we spotted the NHOW floating in the high winds just over the treeline off in the distance; Mike and I enjoyed a quick view through our bins! When she arrived up to us she inquired “have you seen any owls?” we nodded and smiled and said “yes, not 30 seconds ago”
Mike asked “what is it that you’re doing out there?”
Woman: I put mice on the ground to attract the owl. We are photographers.
Mike: That’s illegal, you know.
Woman: Ehh, I raise the mice and feed them grain. NO ANTIBIOTIC. How is it illegal??!!
Mike: Baiting is not allowed. You’re doing nothing to help the animal; you’re hurting it!
Woman: Ehh, *&^% you, you stoooopid, stooopid man!
Mike: (Shocked) and begins to argue with her. Pointing to the obvious: owls becoming habituated during winter and this having an adverse effect when they migrate back to their breeding grounds, etc
Me: Graze Mikes shoulder with mine, motioning to get the hell out of there
Woman: Continues to verbally abuse like I’ve never even seen before; she was vile and so aggressive that she could easily have been arrested.
Mike and I: Walk away while she’s seemingly getting worse and worse to get a reaction out of us
To note: This incident took place on NCC property.
Date: February 21, 2013
Time: 4:30 PM
Jon, you might want to tell Mike that feeding owls is not illegal. While not everyone agrees with it, it is not against any laws.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Jon. I saw the Northern Hawk Owl twice now – once, when I was the only person there early in the morning, and today when there were five or six photographers trying to bait it. I didn’t go close enough to the photographers to speak with them, after hearing about your experience, and didn’t stay long either. The owl was keeping a wary eye on them but didn’t go for the bait (a white mouse). At one point two of the group left the field and circled around behind the owl, going into the stand of trees. The owl was watching them very carefully but seemed disinclined to leave its nice, high perch.
Very well written article on the subject Gillian. I was with Tony Beck that day in 2009 and was in amazement on how tame the snowy owl appeared sitting in the cornfield. He educated me in the practice of baiting as I was ignorant of this fact back then. For me, the joy of birding as a hobby is in the spontaneity of discovering a new species, observing its behaviour in the wild and enjoying the peacefulness of the area you are in. Birding is a very popular activity now and with it comes the many participants that need to be educated on the cause and effect of their actions. Your article educates both new and seasoned birders to this abhorrent practice. Thank you.
Thanks for your comment….and for reading! There’s nothing more exhilarating than coming across your own bird in the wild, is there? While I do sometimes chase them (for instance, I finally saw the Green-winged Teal in the west end today), I find I don’t get the same satisfaction as I do when I’m out roaming around and chance upon something I find interesting, whether it be an owl, an Indigo Bunting, a Virginia Rail sitting in a marsh, etc. No matter what the circumstances, we all need to be careful that we affect them as little as possible.
All the best,
Great article! The information on the Snowy is fascinating. I don’t have anything to add here, except to sat that this should somehow her into print too!
Thanks Justin! Do you mean the Snowy Owl that followed Tony?
I live in New York and when I first read the post about the Great Gray Owls, I was hoping I would get a window of time and weather to go and photograph them. After I read what was going on with the baiting, I decided that I didn’t want to be part of that behavior or be mistakingly associated with it. The thought of just watching a confused helpless mouse being tossed into the snow made me sick. I know now, I made the right decision despite not getting to see this magnificent owl.
Instead, I went to observe another owl species in NY. Everyone was respectful of both the owls and people’s property, and I still got photographs. It was joyful to watch them hunting in their environment.
For me, besides the obvious problems involving baiting and ruining a natural experience as well, I hate the suspicion that is attached to all owl and wildlife photos. I do not like it when photographers all fall under the same umbrella just because they have a large lens. Some of my photographs are happy chance encounters, but most of them are won by hours in the field and more time learning the natural history of these creatures.
In the end, the whole thing is sad. It has caused birding forums to not post owls and therefore the respectful birder or photographer misses out. I can’t blame them though after following this post.
Thanks for your input, Diana. There are a few other Great Gray Owls around besides the ones at Green’s Creek, though they aren’t always easy to find. I enjoyed seeing those ones much more than the ones at Green’s Creek.
I completely sympathize with the photographers who do not bait owls but get “tarred with the same brush”. Photographs resulting from chance encounters and careful study should be valued more than photographs resulting from carefully manipulated settings such as feeders and baiting with live animals, but are they? Do publishers or customers care much how the photo was obtained? I’d love to hear a true nature photographer’s take on this issue.
I’m glad you found another owl in New York and enjoyed the experience. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
All the best,
I have found this article very informative. Thank you for writing and sharing it. We are not in the Ottawa area but in Central Ontario and just this year have had great difficulties with photographers baiting our snowy’s that winter here. It ranges from photography enthusiasts standing at the busy roadside baiting the owls who then fly up on the road in harms way. We also have a group that runs a business of worshops, baiting owls for 6 hrs- 8 hrs per day for 3 and 4 days then not returning for several days. “A friend from the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club who studied classical conditioning in university told me that the strongest reward is an inconsistent one” to quote from your article seems to touch on this. As a seperate issue this group also continues to trespass on private property which shows they not only disrespect the subject they are also disrespectful of the landowners.
We also have many photographers who travel the roads taking non baited photos of the owls naturally, spending several minutes enjoying them from the roadside and then moving on. So I am not lumping photographers into one category just suggesting that a few with poor judgement can ruin things for everyone. I am hopeful things will improve for everyone–especially the owls. We feel so lucky every day to see them in their natural enviroment and wish that people would just respect them and do the same!
At least the property owners can call the police and make it clear to the trespassers that the photographers are not welcome. The owls have no such recourse, and attempts to talk to the landowners here (the NCC) and the local MNR have done very little or nothing at all to resolve the issue. Still, you may want to contact your own local Ministry of Natural Resources office to see if they are more willing to get involved.
And I agree, not all photographers like that; a few have commented here, too, and I appreciate them taking a stance on this issue. The people who are trespassing and harassing the wildlife are giving all photographers and birders alike a bad name. I’m a birder and have a Sony Cybershot camera – not a big lens by any means – and last year I was birding a rural road with my friend when someone pulled up in a car and asked rather crossly whether we were crossing over the fences to take pictures. I told me we weren’t, we were just birding from the road, but he still seemed rather angry as he drove off. I think he must have had a bad experience with someone trespassing and taking pictures on his property.
Gillian, this is a very well-reasoned and sensible rebuttal of a practice that I find disturbing.
I’m an avid bird photographer. I also kept reptiles for many years and became accustomed to raising live creatures to feed them. I never enjoyed that part much, and I’m now down to a blue-tongued skink that flourishes on cat food and bananas (ten years old, he/she seems to like that diet 🙂
Anyway, all your arguments, both ethical and practical, are convincing. Baiting raptors in the wild is not anything I’ve done nor ever would. Thanks for reminding me why not.
When I was growing up, my dad, too, kept snakes and lizards in terrariums, which is why I am just as happy to see my first garter snake in the spring as I am my first Yellow-rump. We had skinks, anoles, a gecko, brown snakes and green snakes, and my dad used to feed them mealworms and crickets – no vertebrates were ever harmed. I’ll have to tell him about your banana and cat food diet! 🙂
Thanks for reading!
what about those birds that starve to death? oh I know, it’s natural. The problem with birders is that they would rather see a bird die from starvation than to see photographers feed it. As for the mice, I am sure they would prefer being eaten by snake, with the snake’s fangs transpersing their poor little body. Does that sound any better than the clean quick death that the owls do by cutting the spinal cord? Those mice are intended for feeding snakes. Hello? That’s not a pleasant death. Are you going to file a petition agains pet snake then?
What I don’t understand is all this propaganda. Sure, propaganda works, as we can clearly see here by the responses of all these uneducated people, but why you never mention those hundreds of owls that perish each year from starvation? Last year alone there were 12 snowy owls rescued in the St-Jude Chouette à voir rescue center. Out of those 12, only a few survived. All the others died from starvation. Stop your propaganda and when you speak about the very rare occasions where a birds might have been habituated to human to the point it stop hunting on its own (extremely rare) than maybe you can speak about actual facts about those that drop dead from starvation?
I have seen people feed owls with mice, and I have also seen those same birds catch wild mice a few times. Who ever say that these birds stop hunting on their own is totally clueless and does not know these birds. Obviously they are opportunistic and wether it is a petshop mouse or a wild mouse, they don’t care, they will go catch and eat it.
As for the mice having disease, this is bullshit. Wild mice can carry and do carry quite a big more disease and parasites than store bought mice. What do you think rescue center feed the starving birds they collect? that’s not wild mice. The only reason they would have contaminated mice is because they feed the birds with dead frozen mice, not live ones. When feeding frozen mice it is not certain if the mice have been unfrozen and frozen again and again, making them unsuitable for the birds.
I have been photographying owls for 6 years now and never once did I witness anything mentioned in this article. Birds not returning home? they always do. Birds not feeding on their own? no, they always do and I have seen it too often. I even have photographs of it to prove it.
Those doing this propaganda are doing it because they don’t even have the decendy of spending the require time on the field to actualy verifying what they are saying. They simply say the birds stop hunting but if they were doing a little effort of spending some time with the owls they too would see it hunt wild preys, as anyone who’s spending time with them could see.
For people who say they care, they don’t even have a clue what the birds do and how they spend their day, what they hunt, and how they behave. Really sad…
Thanks for the comment. While I appreciate that you have a different point of view from my own, I think it’s insulting to refer to all the other people who have commented as “uneducated”.
No, I don’t want to see owls starve. However, I am sickened by the stories I hear of people throwing mice into the field and using a slingshot to shoot them toward an owl (thanks, Steve, for telling me about the situation in Niagara-on-the-Lake), all for a photo. People who keep snakes feed them in the privacy of their own homes. People who are feeding the mice to owls do so in full public view, opening their actions up to criticism. Voicing my disagreement with this practice is not “propaganda”. I am just stating my opinion.
As for your other comments, you are one person. I am one person. I doubt either of us has followed a single owl back to its breeding grounds in the spring to see how it would cope after a winter of baiting, let alone the number required to conduct an unbiased study. The issue here is that there HAVE been no studies conducted, so we DON’T know what’s going on with all of these owls being baited. I don’t understand how people are so unequivocally certain that baiting has no effect on owls when no research studies have been done. The point of my blog post is that other people – biologists, birders, rehabbers etc….EDUCATED people – are concerned about the effects of baiting, have seen owls come to harm, and believe it is in the birds’ best interests NOT to mob or bait them for days and weeks on end. In the absence of any scientific studies, I can’t believe that ALL of these people are wrong.
What a rude, confrontational response, Sylvia. This article is clearly not “propaganda”–it is one woman speaking earnestly on a subject she cares about, and far more respectfully than you did. You accuse her of being uninformed, though she researched this article and carefully linked to her sources, something I don’t see you doing. You ask for facts even though this article is full of facts, with links to news articles and quotes from scientists to back them up.
Your attitude has done nothing to convince me that baiters mean well.
It is propaganda when you only state what you want and not the whole story or actual facts.
We surely can’t follow them going back to their breeding ground, however one thing is easy to see, those birds are still alive and very healthy after months of this regime. That alone is a fact. Four birds being fed with mice all winter, a total of 3 months so far. All of them are currently alive and very healthy, which is easy to see from their plumage, eyes and flight pattern in the woods. Throwing mice with a device? I never saw it and been there often. I guess some people do behave badly, but so far I have not seen it and I would definitly speak up if I would see it. Problem is, most people doing propaganda are only talking about very rare occurences, and not a single mention of all those birds that die from starvation? Starvation and car collision are the two main causes of death for these birds. Now feeding them away from the road actually prevent the car collision part and feeding them with mice actually prevent the starvation part. All very logic.
Even the wildlife people who are actually neutral in this and not influence by their personnal feelings agree that the owls benifit from this extra food during the harsh winter months:
”In response to your correspondence, we wish to inform you that, in accordance with the National Capital Commission Regulations as well as with the Ontario Provincial Regulations, there are no existing laws prohibiting the practice of feeding or baiting owls with mice.
Our Conservation Officers, in consultation with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), advise us that feeding owls with mice is not dangerous to the birds.
Although this practice may make the owls more comfortable around humans, the benefit of receiving food during the harsh winter months outweighs the risk of people approaching the birds to observe them and to take their pictures. Feeding the birds a food already found in their natural environment does not have any effect on their digestive system.”
As you can see, those people are neutral and they have the knowledge. A few wildlife people came on the field to check the activity and one of them gave his card to one of the person there, saying that they had no problem with feeding the birds and if we had any harrasment to call them.
Many many times over the birders have complained to the wildlife authorities about this, and many times over they got the same reply. it is not illegal and it is beneficial to the birds to get help in feeding during the harsh winter months. It is sad to see some people posting comment like this wich was posted on another blog:
“Yes, I think it is better to let them starve. Owl populations fluctuate just like any other animal. That’s how nature works.”
That clearly show that these persons prime interest is not the health and well being of these birds. Just makes me sick to read this type of comment posted here:
Sylvie, this is a blog article, not investigative journalism. In the ongoing debate about baiting I wanted to set out my reasons as to why I am against it. This is MY opinion, and of course I am going to write about the things that are relevant to why I feel the way I do. I have included the facts that have influenced my opinions. You are within your rights to write your own article setting out your opinions on the subject or, alternatively, a balanced, unbiased piece about the subject as a whole and include whichever facts support your case.
As for the issue of feeding the owls to prevent starvation, I have heard no mention of anyone consulting a wildlife expert/biologist to get their views on how many mice a day is sufficient, whether there are other nutritional considerations to take into account, whether fluids and electrolytes should be given to the owls, etc. Until such time as I hear that people are actually doing this for the welfare of the animal rather than to photograph the owl in flight, then I will believe that preventing starvation is the primary concern of the people who are giving mice to the owls. If people really were concerned that these owls are starving, they would put their cameras down, pick up their phones and call the Wild Bird Care Center for advice.
“We are sad to report that the great-gray owl died last night after a
turn for the worse beginning in the late afternoon.
Here’s what we can say about the bird on the basis of our
necropsy: The bird was male and extremely emaciated. The complete
absence of body fat, significantly diminished breast muscle mass, and
results of some simple blood work all suggest a bird in an advanced
stage of starvation. He was very anemic, as indicated by both tissue
color and basic blood parameters. As reported earlier, he had a
heavy parasite load on intake, but there was no apparent damage to
the GI tract as a result. We saw no sign of life-threatening trauma
(fractures, internal hemorrhage, etc.) likely to have been caused by
a car strike; we did not pluck feathers to look for bruising. There
was evidence of a respiratory tract disease process: one lung and
airsacs on that side had opacities and lesions (we’ve taken tissue
samples to send to a veterinary pathologist). None of these are
acute conditions; the bird could have been already on a fatal
trajectory when he arrived in Jackson. Whether any such trajectory
could have been altered by different circumstances over the last week
is impossible to say. – Diane & Marc at Avian Haven”
Sylvie, can you please post the link to this story?
Sure, it is a testimonial by Diane & Marc from Avian Haven wich is a rehab center:
There are many birds that die from starvation each year. Especially young snowy owls that are unexperienced and have a hard time finding their food are those dropping dead from starvation, they are also those who respond to feeding or bating as the more experienced adults very rarely do.
what the heck? they were trying to feed it with cat food? I was hoping they meant mice but look at the food in plate in that photo! NO way a snowy will eat cat food! Poor thing just died.
So let me ask you this, it is better to capture these birds, stress them more than they can support, and try to feed them in cages? or feed them in the field when they can still fly and have no stress coming to get a normal meal? Feeding them in their natural environment is much less stressfull for a bird that is already on the edge.
Thanks for the links, Sylvie. I will have to check them out. In the meantime, I have to say yes, that I would rather see a licensed rehabilitator capture the owls and take care of them in their facilities than for people take matters into their own hands. Sometimes they need to administer fluids to owls that are dangerously emaciated prior to feeding them or provide first aid. They can see the owl’s condition more clearly in their hands than people can through their scopes.
Sylvie with all your protesting of our comments if the birds eat on their own and you feel in your experience they are unharmed by baiting what is your purpose for feeding/baiting the birds? Is it your intention to help them or to manipulate nature to do what you want?Because that is my conflict with baiting specifically..
To help them of course, as I rarely take photos. I use to take photos but now I prefer to watch the birds with my own eyes most of the time. But it does not matter wether people are doing it for photograph or not, as they are helping them get through the winter and they are preventing them from going near the road.
So what if photographers take pictures of the birds? and why is this a problem for you? If the people would be feeding them without taking photos it would be ok?, but feeding them and photographying them is not ok? Sorry but it does not make much sense to me. Please explain why it makes a difference to you??
Great article…I have shared it numerous times. Thankfully I have never seen this take place, nor will I ever participate in the practice. 🙂 I too am a bird/nature photographer. I was super grateful to capture the Great Gray at Green’s Creek just this past Saturday. I was there with one other person who was there simply to look through his binoculars while I photographed the stunning Great Gray.
Thanks Cheryl. It’s nice to hear that the weekend crowds are thinning out, though this is likely because a couple of other owl species were reported this past weekend and the mobs went chasing them. 😦
Feeding/baiting is one in the same it does not matter to me if you are taking pictures or not you are altering the natural habits of the bird and that does matter to me. In my experience they are being baited from the road which is putting them in harms way.I understand that there are no laws prohibiting it and that you are likely a very well intentioned person and your opinion is absolutely valid.Saying that so is mine and the rest of the varied opinions posted here.I am not an expert and the snowy’s here are not in a starvation situation as the ones you mention.Keeping an open mind on this topic and respecting others opinion goes a long way in preservation and I think…that is what we all hope for, however we get there.l
YOu are right about one thing, people feeding it are altering their natural habits of dying from starvation and dropping dead in mid flight. Too many people would rather see them die than being fed by humans. Snowy owls here are not in the state of starvation, this is why they also don’t accept mice either, at least from what I was told, they don’t this year. Only those birds that are starving with accept mice offering.
I guess you are aware that their main cause of death is starvation? AS for keeping an open mind, do that as well.
Why not go there and get to know what you are talking about and refering too? Most people don’t know these birds as well as those who spend hours in the field with them, not only to photograph them but to be with them.
As for birds not returning to their breeding ground, well in 6 years I have never seen it. They always do, no matter how much people feed them.
“As for birds not returning to their breeding ground, well in 6 years I have never seen it. They always do, no matter how much people feed them.”…wow,, did you really say this? This is one of the most foolish comments I’ve ever seen. So Sylvie, just how many of these owls have you followed back to their breeding grounds? Did you radio-track them? How do you know their fate? Can’t wait to hear how you know this.
Thanks Kathleen. Well said!
I’ve read many articles on the subject of baiting and had numerous discussions with both camps. Your article is detailed and although I don’t agree with everything, it was well written and thought I would provide you with my observations.
I’m a photographer and have been baiting raptors (owls, hawks, kestrels etc) for over 10 years. I have over 1000 hours of field experience (while baiting) and here’s what I have to share.
1-On the subject of killing mice for an image: The mice I usually acquire are bread for reptiles, much like cows and chickens , they are destined for death. Many don’t like seeing the live mouse getting eaten by the owl, but they never refuse a good steak (spare me if you’re a vegan). The difference is a visual one. Most of them never visited a slaughter house…and that’s ok, it’s not a pretty site. Are the mice bad for the owl? Unless it’s soaked in cyanide, my opinion is that it’s quite safe.
2-A change in the birds behaviour due to baiting: It’s more a confirmation of adaptability and intelligence. Do the birds make an association with an individual after it has been baited? Absolutely. They’re very smart creatures. Do they stop hunting because they have been baited? Hell no! I’m not a scientist, but I do have the advantage of having spent 1000’s of hours with raptors, snowies in particular. And I can guarantee you that 100% of the birds I baited ALWAYS jump on the opportunity for food (unless they are full, or ready to cough up a pellet). Feeding them mice won’t change millions of years of evolution. They hunt, baited or not, it’s a survival mechanism.
3-Birds no longer afraid of humans after being baited: That is true in some cases. However, in all my years of baiting, not once did I see a person grab an owl and bring it home. If someone has bad intentions, they’ll get to the birds, baited or not.
4-Indiviuals posting locations of species on the web with maps etc: This is no rocket science…DONT DO IT! Most local photographers will share locations amongst each other
and even get together as a small group to photograph. Posting it on the web will and has created a circus like environment in some areas. I’m all for meeting like-minded people but very large crowds are not my preference. I think I speak on behalf of many local photographers. Do your homework and find the reward.
5-Birders vs. Photographers: It’s unfortunate that we can’t spend our energies on more important causes (de-forestation, loss of habitat, etc.) than baiting and getting too close to subjects, using calls etc…We all have one admiration in common…the Natural World. Put away the emotions and let science talk. Most of the arguments between camps is of an emotional nature, therefore useless w/o scientific date to back it up. Let’s get a grip on our emotions and get along .
Those are my two cents. I say, let’s be respectful, enjoy nature and have fun doing so.
Mark, your comment is calm and rational. However, the Green’s Creek thing has become so big that unless you are interested in baiting owls or watching baiting owls, you have little chance of enjoying the owls. There is no sharing going on if you want to put it that way. As we discussed before in person, out of sight is out of mind and that would be preferable to baiting the so-called celebrity birds. You’d prefer it, we’d prefer it. But the problem is that every Tom, Dick and Jane sees this going on and they all jump on the bandwagon. I heard that someone released 5 or 6 mice at the NHOW site and the owl didn’t budge. That’s just stupid. It’s become way over the top.
By the way, Mark, the comment is by Chris Traynor
There IS sharing going on between us “tight” local photographers. We have other locations that have been kept quiet and that we visit regularly. You and I both know that public disclosure is what causes the Circus.
I can’t be responsible for those who don’t know how to bait, recognize stress signs in birds ect, like you can’t be responsible for birders using calls too often or flushing birds etc. Experience and education is key.
Chris, the “out of site, out of mind” is too late for Greens Creek. But just to be clear, if you and I were the only ones that knew about the site, and met on site …I would still throw a mouse:)
See you around Chris!
Marc (apologies for spelling your name with a K down below), if we met at the site and you would still throw a mouse,..I’m sure you meant “place” a mouse. But I also think you would give me fair due and allow me some time to watch without monopolizing the site all day. At least you said so once. That option doesn’t remain at GC. Yes, it’s too late for that site. As for you other locations…you need to be vigilant because certain people are out there sleuthing and will “out” you location if they find it. Cheers.
Thank you for providing such a respectful, well-thought-out response. I appreciate the fact that you have presented your case without resorting to insults, accusations, or trying to score points, which is how many of these discussions seem to go after a while.
1. Regardless of what the mice are bred for, the idea of using them to turn another living creature into a sideshow still does not sit well with me. And hearing about people who dangle them by the tail, toss them into the snow, or use a slingshot to fling them at the owl really disturbs me. I just find it heartless and cruel.
2. Can you guarantee that all of the birds resumed their normal hunting patterns after you left them the last time? Is there a difference between how birds that have been baited occasionally by one or two people and how ones being baited for months on end by large crowds (like the owls at Green’s Creek) respond after the baiters have finished with them? These are things we need science to answer…however, no such studies exist. Without the research, none of us can be absolutely certain of the answers to these questions.
3. You’re right, if someone means to harm an animal, they will find a way. The Barred Owl at Mud Lake wasn’t baited, yet it was shot. Humans have a bottomless capacity for cruelty, and animals SHOULD be afraid of us.
4. I agree with you on this point. One of the reasons why baiting bothers me is that it is not done privately, amongst one or two people, but rather in large groups of people for hours and days on end. There’s no peace for the owl, and no chance for interested public to enjoy a peaceful encounter with the owl. I wonder how many people who heard about the owl through the newspaper were turned off to birding by the spectacle at Green’s Creek?
5. I agree that it’s sad that this division has become so rancorous, when it’s not strictly an “us vs. them” issue. There are both birders and photographers who care about birds and conservation, and there are both birders and photographers who only want the next “tick” or the next photograph while caring nothing about the bird they are chasing. Some feel privileged and awed by nature while others feel entitled. Sure, those of us who do care about wildlife and conservation should spend our energies on more constructive things – I signed Ontario Nature’s letter re: the Endangered Species Act, did you? (I mean you as in the public generally, not you specifically, Marc!) – however, we humans are emotional creatures, and we feel what we feel. It may be easy to set aside emotion to conduct a debate in a civil, respectful manner, but it’s not easy to put the emotions themselves aside.
I couldn’t agree with you more on those last two points. However, the circus at Green’s Creek is not “nature”, or at least not the wild and untamed nature most people expect to find when they hear about the owls. As many people have said, I will not being visiting that circus again. It may be more work to go out and look for my own birds, but it is much more rewarding when I find something completely unexpected and just as marvelous.
It is unfortunate that the open dialog that is being offered here has taken on this fractious tone. The birds that are being baited here in my area are not starving and are quite readily accepting the mice that are being brought to them. The most common causes of death of snowy owls are crashes with vehicles, utility lines and airplanes, gunshot wounds, electrocution and entanglement in fishing line. You have assumed I do not get out and spend time in the field and am speaking from an ignorant place. I, like you have spent many hours observing them and photographing them as they winter where I live as I said in my original post. The privlege to do so has allowed me to be an enthusiast as you are. Each situation can be assessed on an individual basis and the one I have particularly addressed is the baiting and feeding of healthy self sufficient birds. I agree if there is a situation where birds are starving, that may require another approach. I will continue to listen and learn from others about these beautiful birds and I do hope you will too.
You said that people spend hours baiting them in the field where you live, but they are not starving?? If they would not be hungry they would not accept this type of food. Beleive me when I said this because we’ve tried feeding snowy owls that were not starving and they were not interested in petshop mice at all. So if there are so many people in your area feeding them for such amount of time, they must be starving. How can you say they are not starving?? on what ground? Just try to feed a snowy that is not starving and you will see that it will fly away and not come to get your mice. I have seen it many times. Others who are feeding owls can confirm this.
The main cause of death is starvation as well as collision with cars etc… Those birds are not migratory birds and the only reason they are here is because they are starving. Unfortunately this is not a proper environment for them and they will get into collision with cars when hunting, much more than when being fed in a middle of a field away from a road.
Do you think they fly all that distance and stay fat all the way here? once they get here they are very thin.
Good points. Photographers have been baiting the NHOW in Ottawa even though it was hunting quite well on its own for a few months. The starving owl argument doesn’t wash in that case.
Here is another report of starving snowy owls:
“A snowy owl that was hungry, injured and on the brink of dying was found near Collins Bay Institution. It looked as if the bird had been hit by a car, likely because lack of eating had sapped the bird of the energy it needed to avoid the accident.
While it is a little bit on the thin side, Meech said, it’s doing pretty well. It will likely recover and be released back into the wild.
It’s been one of the few bright spots so far this season at the wildlife refuge near Napanee, between Kingston and Belleville, and may be one of the few stories of hope the centre will be able to tell this winter season.
That’s because two snowy owls have already died this season from starvation and the number of birds that will die because of simple hunger is expected to rise.
The wildlife refuge is making a public appeal for residents to call if they believe an owl may be in distress and dying of starvation.”
Seems that one of the cause of collision is the bird being too weak from starvation to avoid car collision or other type of obstacles.
Sylvie you have labelled this group as uneducated but have on several points cited incorrect information yourself on these birds.I suggest you read this basic overview of the snowy owl and re-consider some of your facts. Specifically your suggestion that snowy’s are not migratory birds. Migrating birds do feed as they travel and are well equipped to do this. http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/snowy-owl.html
Well done Gillian. A discussion copied here on my blog for those interested.
This will be an on-going argument that will last forever., It comes down to respect. I hope over time, more people will become aware of the impact that this practice has on these birds, and nature. People need to realize that we have all done more then enough to upset the balance of nature.
The strong survive in nature, it has been this way for many thousands of years.
best wishes to everyone.
Thanks Ray. I agree, this argument will probably go on until we finally get some scientific evidence that shows unequivocally whether baiting is harmful or not. In other words, forever. In the meantime, I think we can now safely say that more (electronic) ink has been devoted to this topic than has been to Stephen Harper’s second term in office. 🙂
Give me a break Raymond. During the winter of 2012/2013 it was said that you paid a local from St .Catherines to run in the field behind the new hospital to scare the snowy owls there so your paying customers could get flight shots. The individual you paid thought nothing of sharing even though it incriminated him. What amazed me most in the outing of yours was that the same client paid you to take him out to the owls 3 days. Most people who had more brains than money would of paid to find the location then gone back on their own.
Every time I open my back sliding patio door, or start my truck I flush birds. When I approach birds for a shot, I usually flush them. Asking someone who was in need of money to do me a favor like this to me is not a big deal. People who think birds should not be flushed should stay in their homes, then no damage done.
People who feed wild animals, carnivores are making a mistake. That is my opinion, and that is what this discussion is about.
What amazes me is how you would feel it necessary to bring this up in a public forum. If you wanted to know about every stupid thing I have done in the field, just ask, I could write a book.
Rosslyn, I wish you a very Merry Christmas, best wishes to you and your family, kindest regards.
Hi Rosslyn & Raymond,
While I don’t agree with deliberately flushing owls, given that an owl whose location is known to other photographers/birders has likely been flushed on multiple occasions already, and ought to be able to hunt in peace, I agree that this is not the right forum for bringing this up. A) I have no knowledge of whether this allegation is true, and have no interest in whether it is or not; and B) This post is about my reaction to feeding sentient creatures to wild owls for the sake of a photograph – or, more likely, for hundreds of photos of the same bird week after week. Fortunately I haven’t heard of any baiting in our area yet this winter, but with so many Snowies in the area I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
Wishing you both peace and joy this holiday season, and a continued love of the birds,
I have been involved with owl handling and rehabilitation since 1970. I have worked with some of the pioneers in rehabilitation such as the McKeevers out of Vineland and Kitt Chubb out of Verona. I worked with Kathy Neihi. I have handled hundreds of owls. The number one cause of winter mortality is starvation. Second is vehicle collisions.
Why do we get owl invasions? The main cause is the cyclical nature of prey abundance resulting in the build up of owls numbers. The subsequent drop in prey means the owls need to move to find food usually younger less experienced birds. When they move they are often in poor condition. If they are fortunate they find areas where prey is in sufficient numbers to sustain them and allow them to build reserves to return to the breeding grounds. Unfortunately winter mortality is the fate for the majority.
Feeding can be the salvation for some.
Chris if the birds do not go back to their breeding grounds in the spring where else do they go?
When an owl locks on to its prey they develop tunnel vision. I have seen a Hawk Owl fly into the side of an 18 wheeler as it flew across a road to catch a wild mouse.
I have had Great Gray Owls fly knee high between myself and a friend standing four feet away.
If they are hungry only one thing counts – catching food! If they are in good condition and well fed no amount of bait will attract them.
In my opinion providing supplemental winter food be it a bird feeder in your back yard or live prey to a raptor the benefits to the bird outweigh the negatives.
Not reporting locations deprives many people who would not otherwise get to enjoy these beautiful wonders of nature.
If we do not share our love and fascination with all aspects of nature with the general public how can we expect the common man to devote resources to protect our natural heritage.
Rick-If the migration of snowy owls is dictated by abundence of prey why for 40 + years have there been snowy’s wintering here where I live? Would there not be a presence some years and possibly none in years? Wintering grounds and breeding grounds are clearly identified by bird authorities. If it is true that young birds begin their migration in poor condition and the majority die of starvation are the snowy’s in an endangered category? You also say that a snowy will not take bait if it is not hungry–every day the bird would require their quota of mice and being baited would artificially fill that need for them healthy or not I would think. The idea that feeding them can be their salvation is somewhat confusing to me as I am unsure how you identify those that need support and those that do not other than the most obvious of course. What are you feeding them for, to return to their breeding grounds where you say would be an abundance of owls now and possibly limited prey only to continue the cycle once again. This is where I question the interference with nature–how have these magnificent birds survived if now it is considerd neccessary to feed them artificially. I am in no way suggesting that it is better to let them die rather than assist them I am just questioning the circle that has been created when humans think they are helping? It is a chicken and the egg discussion and I am not an expert just an observer. I pose these questions to you respectfully as you have identified yourself as someone with much experience. We can learn from each other and I do look forward to your inputs-thank-you.
Kathleen you say you see Snowy Owls every winter but in what numbers and sex/age classes. If you review your records I think you will find numbers vary. In an eruption year they will be common then the next year numbers will be very low slowly building to another eruption year – about every four years.
These eruptive species do not have a defined yearly migration like for example swallows.
Great Gray Owls have a very defined four year cycle with every eighth year a major eruption year. The problem with these movements is they are not predictable as to where or how far south.
Late February through mid March is a critical time for these owls. There is no way to tell by just looking at them from a distance what physical condition they are in. This time frame is also when they need to build up their resources to return to their breeding grounds and be in good enough condition to reproduce.
You decry human interference but unfortunately the only way to eliminate it is to remove all humans from the equation..
“Not reporting locations deprives many people who would not otherwise get to enjoy these beautiful wonders of nature.” That may have been the case once. But we all know that ebird and Ontbirds are used by many photographers to chase down subjects. Easier then looking for them yourself. These are not the people who are going to ooh and aah over the beauty of nature. Frankly, those sites have replaced fieldcraft and patience. As for where the birds go..I imagine many return, I imagine many don’t. There is no available science on the subject. All these arguments, by the way, can be made for feeding any wildlife…maybe tether out some cats and small dogs to feed the fishers in a tough year. Get some good shots too…can’t see what the difference would be.
Very easy answer to your EBird and OntBird websites issue, Chris. Just close them down if you feel the photographers are using them too much. But your statement is quite arrogant if you feel photographers don’t go out and search out our own birds. Fact is we do and many of us have as good or better fieldcraft. The reality of the situation is that the majority of postings on those two sites are of very little benefit to photographers. Seeing a raft of various ducks 1000 feet out on the Ottawa River does absolutely nothing for a photographer. We don’t have the zoom capacity even in the longest lens to get a decent photograph. Your scopes with a 60 times magnification are far stronger than even an 800mm, lens with a magnification of 16 times. And before you mention digiscoping, it is still no comparison nor what a photographer is looking for their photos.
Michael, I know many photographers do go out to find their own birds. Many are very good birders. My point still stands though. I said “many” photographers I did not say them all. Check through most, not all, most owl galleries on various sites and you will just see mostly just the birds found by the following the listserve. The chap with the similar last name to you is a good example. But seriously, Ontbirds is of little use to photographers? That is absolutely untrue.
“Seeing a raft of various ducks 1000 feet out on the Ottawa River does absolutely nothing for a photographer.”…this would seem to imply that birds are of no interest themselves, only as photographic subjects. Birds are only of interest if they are close enough to be photographed well?
“Birds are only of interest if they are close enough to be photographed well?” Ok, Chris let me put this in simple terms so you understand. Seeing a raft of ducks at 1000 feet away with a photographers lens is just a bunch of dots on the water. No detail, no colours to admire. I would have though you could have figured that one out. How about we remove all the eyepieces from that are over 10x magnification from all the spotting scopes used by every birder. That will put us all on the same even playing field. How interesting do you think those dark dots are going to be to the vast majority of birders?
The problem Chris is you birders think birders and photographers are the same. We are not and the hobbies/professiions are not the same. I have heard many birders say getting just a photograph of a bird should be good enough. Actually no its not good enough. A photographer is looking for a totally different experience and many are looking for a product to sell as this makes up a portion to complete amount of our income. As a photographer I don’t restrict myself to just birds. I can find just a much pleasure in photographing fungus in a forest or lichen on a tree. But I also don’t want to take that photograph from 100 feet away. I have a frame of space to put a subject in and I want to get as much of that subject into that frame. This is what photographers have been doing since the camera was invented. You as a birder are trying to do the very same thing when you look through your scopes.
“Birds are only of interest if they are close enough to be photographed well?” What you need to do is stop looking at our world through birders eyes and step into the photography world through photographers eyes. Many of us have been in both worlds, birders and photographers. Some move to one and some stay in both.
“Ok, Chris let me put this in simple terms so you understand”…no need to be insulting Michael. I merely pointed out the implication of a statement.
My opologize Chris, that was an unnecessary statement.
Chris the photographers will find out about their target species – they have their own network. The people you are depriving are the non-affiliated Joe public. The ones we need on our side to preserve nature for the future.
“I have been involved with owl handling and rehabilitation since 1970. I have worked with some of the pioneers in rehabilitation such as the McKeevers out of Vineland and Kitt Chubb out of Verona. I worked with Kathy Neihi. I have handled hundreds of owls. The number one cause of winter mortality is starvation. Second is vehicle collisions.” Rick, please see the following link for the Owl Foundation’s view on baiting. https://www.facebook.com/TheOwlFoundation?fref=ts It would seems the owl pioneers don’t agree with you.
Lastly, if someone like Mark L. above wanted to take “joe public” somewhere quiet and show them the majesty of an owl then I would have less of a problem with that (though still not agreeing with it) then the “circus” of dozens of people with boxes and coolers of mice…a reliable source counted as many as 10 containers. I know many of the baiters don’t even advocate that this is a good thing.
Thank you Chris for this link–very interesting–I find your posts quite informative and very good points are made.
Chris you are correct Green’s Creek is a circus. It is an extreme. The Old Quarry Hawk Owl is another extreme but we can not base our conclusions on extremes.
My contention/opinion is on average feeding can be beneficial.
Chris you are absolutely correct in that it became a circus, but the fact that once it became public knowledge it could have been even worse that eventually became. We were lucky there weren’t 1000 people there on the weekend instead of the 50 or so. When people are coming from the far south of the USA, the UK, Europe to see these birds it could well have been much much worse. If you really think Greens Creek was bad take a look at what it could have been
The link you provide is a good indictment of humanity. We behave like complete idiots sometimes.
“The link you provide is a good indictment of humanity. We behave like complete idiots sometimes.” For some reason I cannot reply to this one directly.
I agree totally Chris. As i have stated on the other thread, there are very good people and some complete dunderheads on both sides of the baiting and the general birder/photographer issue. Both sides need to eliminate the emotions and try to see things from each others sides.
If I could get the shots I want from 1000 feet away I would be happy, but I can’t due to the limitations of equipment so I have to get closer. Birders need to understand the limitations of photography equipment. I have had birders say to me at Andrew Haydon park that I should be able to get incredible shots with a lens that big. Until I let them look through the lens and saw how small the image was in comparison to their scope.
Apology accepted Michael. We will probably never agree on this but I appreciate your civility.
From my take on this baiting mostly occurs at the “workshops’. One person gets a bunch of photographers to sign up in advance, they pay each for the outing and the person setting it up goes to the area for a few days ahead to start the baiting so the owls get used to it. Then the day of the “workshop” the photographers they paid will be happy as they will get there shots. Its mostly about money. Nothing worse than taking a group of people to shoot and nothing is found. I don’t bait and do not think it should be done. just because theres no laws does not mean its okay to do it.
“just because theres no laws does not mean its okay to do it”…for sure. The law could never have foreseen this practice.
It’s not just people holding “workshops” that are doing the baiting. However, they are exacerbating the problem by teaching novice photographers that it’s okay to manipulate wildlife & habituate owls to people just to get a photo. They certainly aren’t teaching patience and fieldcraft. It’s all about the instant gratification….and, as you said, the money.
“teaching novice photographers that it’s okay to manipulate wildlife & habituate owls to people just to get a photo.” Gillian you are doing the same thing when you put out seeds for a Cardinal or going to the Hilda feeders to get your photographs. You are using a food source to bring them in. Therefore you are manipulating and habituating the birds to people just to get a photograph.
” They certainly aren’t teaching patience and fieldcraft” I actually love it when you contradict yourself with statements like thus one. You complain about the photographers spending hours standing in the fields waiting for the owls. Then you say we can get the same shots by patience and waiting. So in order to be patient and waiting that would mean standing around the bird for a long period of time, which is exactly what you complain the photographers are going.
“It’s all about the instant gratification” So is putting out seeds to attract birds to get your photograph or putting them on your hand to get a bird to feed from them.
Here is a quote from Wilson Hum’s photopage on pbase today “I noticed a number of local photographers all arriving at the same time. Then they marched together to where the Boreal Owl was roosting. I understand they tried to use a mouse to lure the owl out into the open”…if this is true then it’s an outrage. This bird has been here for a month and a half hunting successfully. I have seen it roosting with prey each time I’ve seen it. The feeding the hungry owl argument doesn’t hold for this bird or for the hawk owl. Enough is enough!!
It is interesting how comments can be manipulated to say something that was not really said. Birds at the feeder are not birds of prey where their hunting skills are at risk. It is reported that any of our foraging birds that frequent the backyard feeder are using it for approx 20% of their total diet. They continue to forage for their daily meals. To suggest that a backyard feeder and baiting birds of prey is the same thing is quite a reach. Patience and waiting does not mean hours in the field it means a reasonable amount of time in the presence of the bird–taking the shots presented and moving respectfully on to your next subject. To say “I actually love it when you contradict yourself with statements like thus one.” does that mean you are right Micheal? I think it means you misinterpreted a statement and it lowers your credibility in this discussion by turning what would have been an interesting read to a personal statement which you have already retracted in an above posting. This is a very interesting group of people who bring all kinds of information to one place for us all to discuss in a respectable way.
Michael, putting seeds out to feed the birds that live year-round in close proximity to humans is NOT the same as feeding live mice to owls that have likely never seen a human before, since most of the ones that come south are juveniles. Feeding the cardinals at Hurdman is entirely different. In my blog post I state that the birds flew in to me so I put some seed out – I did not lure in birds that were going about their business and ignoring me, or do it just to get some photos. The opportunity presented itself when the cardinals came, which I wasn’t expecting as they are normally quite shy. Further, these are species have become habituated to people long before I was even born.
For you to equate my feeding the cardinals with baiting the owls, I would have had to go to Hurdman specifically to photograph the cardinals and joined a large group of people already clustered around them. I would have found them sitting on a branch, unmoving, so in order to get some flight shots I would have tossed out one sentient, wriggling sunflower seed onto the snow at a time in order to photograph them. I would have then had to spend the entire afternoon doing this over and over. This is hardly in the same category as my going to Hurdman to find the Barrow’s Goldeneye, putting out some seed when the chickadees approached me, briefly photographing one of the two cardinals that also flew in, and then continuing on my way to the river to watch the goldeneyes.
And no, I am not contradicting myself. The issue I am discussing here is people spending hours baiting the owls with store-bought mice, surrounding them, disturbing them while they are trying to rest, and pursuing them when they fly off. I have no problems with photographers who keep a respectful distance from the owl and WAIT for the owl to catch field mice or voles on their own. These are entirely different approaches to photography…one that I can respect, and one that I can’t.
As for instant gratification, the enjoyment I get comes from watching and interacting with the birds directly, not photographing them. I rarely photograph the birds that I feed, and when I do, I don’t target just one particular species, or do it to get stunning flight shots, or to fill up my galleries/blog posts with the resulting photos. Again, this is hardly in the same category as what the people running or attending the workshops are doing.
“Here is a quote from Wilson Hum’s photopage on pbase today “I noticed a number of local photographers all arriving at the same time. Then they marched together to where the Boreal Owl was roosting. I understand they tried to use a mouse to lure the owl out into the open”…if this is true then it’s an outrage. This bird has been here for a month and a half hunting successfully. I have seen it roosting with prey each time I’ve seen it. The feeding the hungry owl argument doesn’t hold for this bird or for the hawk owl. Enough is enough!!’ Actually Chris I am in total agreement with you on this one.
Thanks Michael. I think common sense has to enter the equation somewhere. It seems to be lost.
Very well said. I find the whole thing unethical and as someone mentioned earlier, there are reports of baiting being done in MN and WI to attract the owls and lure them in closer…but what’s even more disturbing is the harassing and teasing to get those shots. I going to try and include a link here..this one shows how the “bait” was pulled away at the last second. You will also links from this one to others and a whole slough of comments both for and against the so called photographer who in his own comments had the audacity to say he was helping the owl.
Sorry, I thought this would take you to the youtube site…I didn’t mean to imbed right into your blog.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8MNvJe0oN0 here is another one of the same instance hopefully it won’t imbed but you can cut and paste it instead.
As too your videos showing “photographers” pulling the mice away. These people are the type of photographers we don’t like to associate with, they make all photographers look bad. The ones I know do not condone or participate in this type of practice. That guy on the road was an absolute jerk.
Thanks Deb, and no worries about the embedded video.
There are certainly lots of arguments out there with respect to owl baiting. This blog post by Laura Erickson tells why it’s particularly bad for owls to be baited in and then receive no food for its efforts. She has some other good points, too.
“Birds at the feeder are not birds of prey where their hunting skills are at risk.” Kathleen, your statement is absolutely false. There is no proof that birds of prey lose their hunting skill by feeding them mice. Owls in fact use the very skills they were born with, The only difference is they do not have to punch through snow to get their meal and their success rate goes up. There by giving them more food value for less energy expended.
“It is reported that any of our foraging birds that frequent the backyard feeder are using it for approx 20% of their total diet.’ And the same can be said of the owls. They are not fed 100 percent of the time and do find their own food. A fact I have witnessed time and time again.
“To suggest that a backyard feeder and baiting birds of prey is the same thing is quite a reach.” That’s your opinion and you are entitled to it, but I don’t agree. Either way people are supplying food and therefore in your terms “manipulating” nature.
“Patience and waiting does not mean hours in the field it means a reasonable amount of time in the presence of the bird–taking the shots presented and moving respectfully on to your next subject.”
So who exactly determines the amount of time that is reasonable. You? You don’t have any authority to determine the time a person should be in a given area. What I consider reasonable might be different than yours or Chris’s or Gillian’s. Each person must determine that for themselves. Also who exactly determines what the shots that someone is getting are good enough? Would that be again you? That is totally up to the person taking the shot not anyone else.
““I actually love it when you contradict yourself with statements like thus one.” does that mean you are right Micheal? ” That was my opinion and you have the right to disagree with it, but to me Gillian was contradicting herself and I explained why I thought so.
“I think it means you misinterpreted a statement” You can think anything you want, but like you wrote “does that mean you are right Kathleen”
Regarding your statement that “there is no proof that birds of prey lose their hunting skill by feeding them mice”, this is because no studies have been conducted on the subject, NOT because studies were conducted and found that 100% of the owls studied don’t lose their hunting ability. I found one comment on a website that describes an owl that was being baited by photographers and stopped hunting once the photographers left. They returned with another photographer some time later and found the owl “very weak and on the ground – in danger of becoming the prey. They couldn’t get a ‘good shot’ because it wouldn’t get off the ground. Luckily, they called the DNR and the owl is healthy, but they can never release it back in the wild because it will never take care of itself now.” If I found one story like this, how many others are there that I haven’t found? And how many times has it happened that we AREN’T aware of because nobody went back to check on the owls?
As for the statement that backyard feeders account for approximately 20% of the songbirds’ total diet, this statistic is backed by studies which show songbirds spend only about 20% of their time foraging at bird feeders as opposed to foraging in natural areas. You can’t equate it to the percentage of an owl’s diet that comes from baiting, especially since only the owl knows how much he’s catching naturally. If 80% of the owl’s food really does come from field mice, meadow voles and other rodents in the area, then why do photographers need to bait them in the first place?
Second, owls and songbirds have different foraging strategies. Songbirds forage over a large territory which incorporates a number of different feeders, wooded areas, etc. The owls at Green’s Creek and March Valley Road are hunting in the same fields day after day and don’t range over as large a territory, which makes them more vulnerable to human disturbance and interference. Unlike songbirds, they do not merely fly away to another foraging area.
“Regarding your statement that “there is no proof that birds of prey lose their hunting skill by feeding them mice”, this is because no studies have been conducted on the subject, NOT because studies were conducted and found that 100% of the owls studied don’t lose their hunting ability.” Since you say no studies have been done then you cannot make the statement that they lose their ability to hunt. I make my statement by visual evidence in the field that I have witnessed first hand. The very fact they are using their site and hearing to find the mouse shows that they are in fact hunting when a mouse is provided. Not all of the food they catch is buried deep under the snow. I have seen them pick off a vole that made the mistake of coming to the surface and it found it in exactly the same way.
As for the weak one you have no proof it was from a lack of being fed for a short period of time that was the issue. I may have found a rodent that was poisoned and ate it as happens in many farm communities. I ask you to really think about this for a minute. Owls have been around for millions of years and have perfected their abilities to hunt by the evolution of the eyes and ears, soft feathers with fringed tips for silent flight. This is now part of their very being an instinct they are born with, not something they have to be taught. Do you really think that having a human put out a rodent on the surface of the snow is going to make them “forget” how to hunt in a matter of 6-8 weeks they are in an area they come into contact with humans maybe once in their lives.
If I found one story like this, how many others are there that I haven’t found? And how many times has it happened that we AREN’T aware of because nobody went back to check on the owls? Again no proof this was not an isolated case. The one that were in the Greenland area last time were fine up to the point they were last seen.
” You can’t equate it to the percentage of an owl’s diet that comes from baiting, especially since only the owl knows how much he’s catching naturally.” And once again I point out that in the entire lifespan of an owl they are in an area for a very short period of time. They may never see people ever again. Banded owls back in the 90’s showed that the owls went all over the place and did not always go back to the area of their birth or nesting. Some Snowy’s that were banding in North America were found in SIberia
“Second, owls and songbirds have different foraging strategies. Songbirds forage over a large territory which incorporates a number of different feeders, wooded areas, etc. The owls at Green’s Creek and March Valley Road are hunting in the same fields day after day and don’t range over as large a territory, which makes them more vulnerable to human disturbance and interference. Unlike songbirds, they do not merely fly away to another foraging area.”
A birds foraging technique is dictated by the amount and availability of their food source. In the summer a Song bird with forage close to the nesting area on the abundance of insects. That area is smaller than in the winter time. In the winter if there is enough food in the area to sustain the population the song bird will keep their foraging to a small area, for example the Hilda Rd feeders. Because food is brought into that area on a daily basis the small birds keep to that relatively small area. Owls follow the same rule of territory vs food supply guidelines. In their nesting sites a pair feed on an area of a certain size depending on the size of the owl population. The more owls in a given area the smaller the individual pairs hunting territory will be. If the food supply is depleted they either expand their territory or move to a new area. No owl is going to stay in an area if there is no food.
“I found one comment on a website that describes an owl that was being baited by photographers and stopped hunting once the photographers left. They returned with another photographer some time later and found the owl “very weak and on the ground – in danger of becoming the prey. They couldn’t get a ‘good shot’ because it wouldn’t get off the ground. Luckily, they called the DNR and the owl is healthy, but they can never release it back in the wild because it will never take care of itself now.”
The conclusion that the baiting and subsequent stopping of baiting was the cause of this owls distress is incredible. This owl was obviously suffering from far more than simple hunger/lack of food. There had to be a neurological, physical or underlying long standing health issue. How long was the interval “some time later”? Was the owl monitored during that interval to see if it may have been hit by a vehicle?
I have never heard of a healthy, physically intact bird of prey that could not be rehabilitated so it could be released..
Michael no I do not decide what is a reasonable amount of time to be spent with the birds and I have not represented myself as an authority on anything in this discussion. You are right each person must determine that for themselves and I in no way suggest it differently. No Micheal I do not decide which shots are good enough, that again would be up to the individual. Yes I can think what I want and so can you Michael and this forum allows us to express those views. For me this discussion is not about being right or wrong or who knows more than others or can out write them with condescending comments such as yours continue to be. It is about learning from each other and as I have said again and again respect for others which you Michael are seriously lacking.
Uhm Ok Kathleen. But I have noticed your tone with people who try to argue for feeding as to your tone with people who are against baiting. Very interesting.
I find your tone very condescending with pro feeders. But that’s just my opinion. As you are entitled to your’s
It is really too bad you feel that way. I am here to learn and continue to do so with each and every post I read.
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I’m glad I found this link, I had no idea my mice would create such a stir. I breed mice and have been providing area photographers with mice for years. This winter I sold over 2500 live mice to a large number of photographers.
First off I want to say that my mice are 110% healthy and do not create any health risk to any animal that ingest them. My main business is providing food for reptiles but in the winter I up my production to keep up with the increased demand.
Second of all I would like to state that these photographers truly care for these owls and other raptors. Most do not broadcast owl locations and I’m sure they would be the first ones to jump in if someone was trying to harm one of the owls.
Thirdly I would like to mention that the owls definitely keep their natural instincts. This week the weather has really started to warm up and as a result many of the owls have moved away back to their warm weather habitat even though they have a buffet of prey right here in their winter location. It happens every year and as a matter of fact last winter was unseasonably warm and the number of snowy owls in the area was down greatly, even though there was an abundance of food waiting for them here.
I’ll mention again that the mice being released are healthy, a lot healthier then wild type mice and other rodents that these magnificent animals ingest regularly.
Wow. I have just read most of this debate and I find it very sad that there is so much animosity between “bIrders” and “photographers”.
I tend to be more of the latter but I take great delight in learning more about the wildlife that I find. I was taught to “do no harm” while bonding with nature and I would like to think the majority of photographers feel the same. I also think that we have many common goals, like protecting the conservation areas from development and harm. Examples of the abuses range from all those who race bicycles through Andrew Haydon Park or “walk”their dogs off-leash in the Fletcher Wildlife gardens to those idiots who killed an owl at Mud Lake with a bow and arrows. (Note: I like most cyclists and dogs.)
I am not a big fan of baiting and I have never personally witnessed it, by the way. I am just an avid photography enthusiast. I am in awe of the wonders of nature and photography has exposed me to an even greater appreciation of our beautiful world. I respect birders and I expect the same in return. When I have sat quietly behind a tree for ages, waiting for a beautiful Hooded Merganser to come closer, only to have a “birder” march up to me and declare loudly that she is one, sending the ducks away, like last Saturday at Andrew Haydon Park, I put it down to common rudeness rather than it being a trait of a “birder”.
We have many common goals and I think we should focus on that instead of a few idiots on both sides.
Unfortunately all it takes is a few bad apples – especially a few bad VOCAL apples – on each side to create an atmosphere of distrust and animosity between all birders and photographers. And you’re right, rudeness and a blatant disregard for the other side’s concerns isn’t a trait of one group or the other, but of individual people. Most of the photographers I’ve talked to and see shooting year round DO share a concern for the birds’ welfare. However, once the winter comes and the owls arrive they seem to bring out the more arrogant types who act like the owl is their own personal property and that their photography is the only thing that matters – not the owl, not the mice, and not the people who simply wish to see or photograph the owl in a wild, natural environment.
I am in complete agreement with your comments about the “abuses” you’ve witnessed at AHP, the FWG and the Barred Owl being killed at Mud Lake. I like to go out and observe NATURE and sometimes I find it difficult to find a place that isn’t overrun by dog-walkers or children running around and screaming (note: I don’t have any problem with children who are out to enjoy nature also and have some idea of how behave). I don’t go birding at playgrounds or off-leash parks, and I wish the people who came to conservation areas with dogs and young children or on their bikes understood that seeing and interacting with wildlife is the main reason why people/birders/photographers go to the NCC trails. I do get that they are multi-use trails, but there are other places for bikes, dogs and children, and not many other places where I can go to see wildlife….unless I leave the city, and then I have to worry about hunters this time of year.
Thanks for commenting!
You are welcome. Hopefully, the rotten apples will fall through the ice! I doubt if everyone will ever agree on everything but it is important for us all to realize that most of us care, whether we are birders or photographers, or both. Dogs and cyclists have their parks and paths, and I think we are entitled to our natural conservation spaces without their interference. (I also worry about seniors and children being hit by bicycles at AHP.)
I suppose I would enjoy getting a great photograph of a snowy owl or any other owl in winter but I have no interest in going to extremes. I was fortunate enough to get some wonderful shots of the great horned owls on the river at Britannia this summer but it definitely didn’t require any ‘enticement’. It was sheer luck and great timing.
My favorite Saturday morning pastime (at 6 a.m.) is first reading Bruce Dilabio’s column. He tries to remind us to follow the code of ethics and I think that is a good way to get through to people.
I am also enjoying your blog. It is very informative and I enjoy reading about your adventures.
BTW, we haven’t officially met but I was on the bandshell photographing the Least Bittern this summer when you were. I think we all got along quite well and no-one harassed that lovely heron (as far as I know, anyway.)
Cynthia aka Cindy
Yes, I find my favourite wildlife encounters are those that happen when I stumble across something on my own, rather than hearing about it and then chasing it. The Snowy Owl above (which was a lifer for me) is an example; I knew they were often seen in the areas between Richmond and Kanata south from Larry Neily’s website and went looking for one. I checked all the roads he mentioned (Shea, Akins, Rushmore) without finding a single one. Then on my way home I spotted this one on Eagleson! I didn’t want to approach too closely, as I didn’t know how tolerant he would be, so I kept my distance and left after taking a few photos.
The Least Bittern is another example – I figured the photographers were shooting a Green Heron or something, until I realized the bird in the reeds was much smaller than a Green Heron. That was a good day. 🙂
Thanks again for reading! (And yes, if you see me out and about again, feel free to introduce yourself!)
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why do you think these Owls have migrated as far south (Ottawa) from Northern Alberta???? They are referred to as ” The Phantom of the North” they are starving buddy and Deb! And I fed them mice from any pet shop I could find all winter,even paid and proud I did what I did. Hope to chat with you in the field as 1 owl has returned.On way to Pets World to stock up.
So your mentioning this because it is important for you to abuse the owls, or you want to antagonize people?, either way a very unfortunate comment.
I understand the temptation of feeding animals that are “starving”, but are you photographing the owls when you feed them and then passing the photos off as “natural”? If so, that’s not feeding, that’s baiting. Are you taking the owl’s safety into consideration, and “feeding” them away from the roadside and in a manner that prevents the owl from associating food with humans? It seems that very few photographers do, though some people who have experience in handling raptors and owls do take this care.
That said, I still don’t think feeding a mammal to a wild animal is right and borders on animal cruelty. The Owl Foundation recently published these reasons to avoid baiting birds of prey, which are well worth considering:
* If it is by a roadside it could create an unsafe situation
* Baiting reduces fear of humans which could lead to dangerous human activity (ie. Shooting, trapping or killing) or aggressive territorial behaviour towards humans that could create a fear of birds of prey
* Gives them a false sense of success for the territory so when baiting ceases they are not able to sustain themselves in that area due to a possible natural low prey density
* Prolonged baiting does not challenge them and their hunting skills may deteriorate leaving them at risk to a reduced hunting success when baiting stops.
* Disrupts natural behaviour. Birds of prey are opportunistic but hunting usually occurs in stealth away from human activity and other predators. Birds often choose hunting times that best avoid competition so baiting could create antagonistic behaviour from other predators.
* The introduction of non-indigenous animals that can disrupt natural ecology as well as introduce potential harmful disease
Thanks for reading.
I’m surprised the MNR told you that baiting is not illegal. Releasing pet store mice into the wild is very much against the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.
Hi Gillian, Great post! I tried to find an email for you on your site so that I could send you my recent article on the subject of ethics in Nature Photography but I couldn’t locate one so I’ll post the link here for your reference. Thank you for being a voice on this very important subject. Here is the link to my article: http://www.NathanielSmalley.com/Insight/An-Observation-Of-Ethics.html
Thanks Nathaniel. I checked out your article – it’s very informative! I like how you describe wildlife photography as being “authentic” when photographers don’t use captive animals or baited animals. My view is that it’s not nature photography if photographers are manipulating the subject in any way, including stitching together more esthetically pleasing backgrounds via Photoshop. I think you’re right – wildlife photography is an increasingly crowded field due to digital cameras, and when those who don’t have the time or experience to capture great photos start cutting corners, it dilutes the value of the photos and makes people believe they can go out and have the same experiences or take the same photos. This potentially misleads non-photographers into thinking that such experiences or species are common, rather than unique or rare. Anyway, great article!
Over the past 18 months, this particular topic has been “hot”. I believe this thread, like many others I have read, deal with a single aspect of a larger issue – the importance of keeping wildlife wild. Invariably when man interjects himself into the world of the wild, it is the animals that suffer the consequences.
I personally would rather that a bird or animal not be aware of my presence or know I am present and “accept” me in their environment. I believe you cannot achieve that level of entry into the wild through baiting, which adjusts animal behaviour from doing what is natural (hunting) to evaluating the risk of getting closer to humans in order to feed.
If people interfere with wildlife (and its behaviour) for their own pleasure that is their prerogative. I, for one, would rather be known as someone who respects the wildlife I interact with. I find it hypocritical that individuals who wish to capture the beauty and elegance of animals feel the need to do so by altering the behaviour of that same wildlife to the point it will be negatively affected.
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Lengthy article written by David Hancock, wildlife biologist, in response to this owl feeding situation can be found on the Hancock Wildlife Foundation website here:
Like many people who support baiting, Mr. Hancock dismisses the concerns of others as myths while his own unsubstantiated claims are meant to be taken as fact. Some of his comments are just pure fancy. A man feeding eagles apparently did more for the recovery of the species than the banning of DDT and tougher laws…it’s piffle like this that makes me not take his article seriously.
You missed the point where David Hancock says that in the central BC coast around Bella Bella where Sonny fed the eagles it greatly changed the perception of the bald eagle as vermin. He did not say this had anything to do with tougher laws and banning DDT which was a great thing to do and has greatly helped the comeback of the bald eagle. However DDT was not used up here.
Thanks for the article, Karen. While interesting, I found it difficult to follow and unpersuasive. Not only does misused punctuation (i.e., his use of parentheses) and poor grammar make it confusing in spots, David Hancock’s article contained irrelevant ramblings about leaving garbage on the porch, the Tar Sands, and aerial surveys that have nothing to do with owl-baiting. In fact, very little of the article is actually devoted to owl-baiting. After reading it a few times, I think his main point is that providing a supplemental food source is okay, given that most wild habitats have been degraded to the point where they support fewer species and much smaller numbers of those species. He suggests that “the streets, the parking lots, the houses and environmental human pollutions have degraded the wild mouse and owl habitat” and that people who bait owls may be “filling in some habitat element in momentary short supply”.
I don’t see how this applies to irruptive owl species, such as the Great Gray Owls, Snowy Owls, and Northern Hawk Owls that are most often the target of baiting. The owls are able to find food just fine in human-altered habitats, especially in the agricultural fields favoured by Snowy Owls. If they aren’t able to find food, then they move on, regardless of whether the habitat was altered by humans.
He also seems to suggest that the only way to appreciate wildlife is to feed it. He doesn’t say anything about how these species often lose their wildness when fed, or become habituated to people. It’s bad enough that some owls become so used to being fed that they follow cars and people looking for handouts; it’s worse that some bears in places like Algonquin Park are killed because they become used to finding food in campgrounds and lose their fear of humans. And really, isn’t that what attracts us to nature in the first place – the wildness of the animals? Otherwise people would just go to the zoo or Parc Omega to see “wild animals”.
Finally, for someone who seems to want to promote an appreciation for animal species that were killed because they were formerly considered “vermin”, he completely ignores the fact that the owls are being baited with live mice – sentient animals that the same right to life as any other species.
I promised myself to stay out of this but what I can not comprehend is this statement ” he completely ignores the fact that the owls are being baited with live mice – sentient animals that the same right to life as any other species.” Owls eat live mice. For an owl to survive it needs to eat live mice whether that sentient animal is store bought or not mice have to die for an owl to survive. Is there something about store bought mice that they have special rights?
Rick: The author seems to applaud the fact that animals once considered “vermin” are now worthy of protection and appreciation. However, he thinks it’s fine to feed mice – another animal considered “vermin” – to owls. He also claims that humans have “degraded most wild habitats” but implies that people who release mice – presumably store-bought, non-native species – into the wild are making a “positive contribution”.
Yes, I am fully aware that owls eat mice. However, they don’t NEED store-bought mice for sustenance. There are already plenty of wild, sentient, native mice and voles within the ecosystem.
It’s not that I think that store-bought mice have special rights; it’s that no one considers their basic rights. It is inhumane to take them from the indoor environment in which they were raised and release them into the wild where they either become the owl’s prey or escape into a harsh environment they are unfamiliar with and unsuited to. Is there something about store-bought mice that makes baiters forget they are living mammals capable of feeling cold and terror? Do baiters even consider them as living creatures, or just objects to get a photograph?
Karen, I am afraid that I must disagree with the perspective that Mr. Hancock puts forth, so I truly believe that they are not musings that you support or have taken to heart. As Gillian re-iterates my belief that we must leave wild animals to remain wild. Take a look at what happens when wildlife has the wonderful opportunity to interact with man:
Here is yet another excellent example of what happens when humans feed wildlife.
Here is what happens to wildlife when man just starts to get close to wildlife and tempt them with other bait that bring with them.
I am glad that Mr. Hancock at least paid attention to the Jellystone Ranger when he implored the folks to not feed the bears. That rule needs to be extended to all wildlife including owls!
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Thank you!I appreciate all the work and research put into this article. I’ve learned something new regarding inconsistent baiting schedules.
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I’ve been meaning to comment on your article for awhile and to say how fantastic it is! Since my experience seeing a Great Gray Owl being baited, I’ve done a lot of research on the topic and I find your article to be one of the best out there! I love the concrete examples you use and your well thought-out and logical arguments. While my boyfriend and I were trying to sort out our emotions after our baiting experience, I told him to read your article and he came away feeling a lot clearer about this issue. The more of us who speak out about owl baiting, the more we can educate, bring awareness to this subject and hopefully make it less acceptable (and stop being done altogether!).
Thanks Laura. I read your blog post, too, and it strongly reminded me of my reaction to the owl baiting at Green’s Creek – I, too, felt disturbed and soiled by the experience. It took me a long time to figure out why I had such a negative reaction to the baiting, and wrote this post in an effort to sort out those feelings. To this day my most popular posts are this one, and one about a finger injury I had two years ago (my only non-nature post!)
My post was written the day after my experience, so I was (and still am) sorting through my reaction. I saw your comment on my blog about feeding seeds to songbirds – thanks for this! I keep getting asked this question over and over again and I definitely didn’t have such a well thought out answer to give to people. And lol, readers aren’t as interested in our “regular” posts about seeing beautiful nature, but the scandalous stuff draws them in.
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