I last discussed owl baiting on this blog back in February 2013 after having a couple of distasteful experiences while trying to view the celebrity Great Gray Owls that made their home in Ottawa that winter. Since then, despite more and more people taking a stance against owl-baiting, this activity remains as popular – and as controversial – as ever. However, new information has emerged recently, warranting another post on this topic.
The main reason why so many people feel strongly against owl-baiting is that it affects the well-being of the owls. Baiting is the practice of using store-bought mice to entice owls to hunt so that photographers can get action shots of the owl in flight. While the photographers doing the baiting may see no issue with this, as there are currently no laws that unequivocally ban it and no research has been done that proves baiting actually harms owls, many naturalists, ethical photographers, and nature clubs feel this practice is bad for several reasons:
1. Baiting is done close to roads, and thus puts owls at risk of collisions with passing vehicles. This is one of the most common causes of mortality in northern owls overwintering in the south. Project Snowstorm, which tracks Snowy Owls from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds with solar-powered transmitters, lost one of their research owls to a vehicle collision in early January 2018 and was able to recover the owl’s body and recorder. Many other owls are found dead along roadsides each winter, including some known to have been baited. Locally, Safe Wings Ottawa is aware of six Snowy Owls having been hit by cars this winter alone.
2. Baiting results in the ongoing repeated harassment of owls, with multiple photographers present all day, every day, particularly with rarer species like the Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl. Snowy Owls are almost a guarantee each winter in Eastern Ontario, which has led to photographers from the US and Canada charging thousands of dollars for workshops in which people to photograph baited owls. The cumulative effect of this constant human presence and the demands on the owl to perform on human timetables interferes with the owl’s natural behaviour and hunting cycles. In particular, it causes behavioural changes that may affect the owls’ long-term survival, such as becoming habituated to humans, learning to beg, and approaching people and cars for food.
3. Tracking data shows that Snowy Owls are naturally nocturnal this time of the year, despite their ability to hunt during the day. Interfering with their natural sleep cycle causes them to expend unnecessary energy they may need to survive.
3. Baiting involves releasing pet-store mice into the snow and cold, which is unnecessarily cruel. While these mice may have been specifically raised to feed pet carnivores such as snakes, they have never been exposed to the outdoors or our cold northern winters.
4. The mice are not native and, should they escape and live to breed, may harm or displace native species in the ecosystem.
5. Baiting ruins other people’s enjoyment of nature. Many people travel long distances to see northern owls in known locations, and many would prefer to see the birds’ natural interaction with their environment. People who drove from as far as the US to see the Great Gray Owls in 2012-13 left feeling disgusted because the owls were being baited constantly, which was not the experience they wanted or expected.
6. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just recently uplisted the Snowy Owl — our most common winter owl — from Least Concern to Vulnerable. The population has been declining, notably in the American and Canadian part of its range. Rather than 200,000 individuals previously estimated, the global population is now believed to be much lower at 14,000 pairs or even as low as 7,000-8,000 pairs. The IUCN says that the causes of the decline “are uncertain but likely include climate change effecting [sic] prey availability, as well as collisions with vehicles and infrastructure. There remains some uncertainty about the overall rate of decline, and if it proves to be even higher the species may be eligible for further uplisting to Endangered.”
7. Owls can remain habituated even after they return to their breeding grounds in the spring. Locally-based birding and photography tour company Always An Adventure visited Rankin Inlet in the high Arctic in the summer of 2017. They were told by an Inuit wildlife guide that, when the Snowy Owls returned that spring, at least one individual was seen following people around. The fact is, we don’t know whether owls will remain habituated and associate people and cars with food for life. We don’t know what will happen if they return to populated areas in the south during the next winter or next irruption. Will they still associate cars with food? Will they follow people looking for handouts? Turning owls into circus performers for a few photos over the course of a winter is simply not worth the risk.
Those who support baiting usually say there is no difference between feeding an owl store-bought mice and putting up a bird feeder. This is untrue.
First, people bait owls solely to get photos. No one dumps a cooler full of mice into a field and leaves, allowing the owl to hunt on its own, completely unobserved. The entire point of baiting is to get photographs, which is selfish exploitation rather than an altruistic desire to feed birds. In contrast, bird feeders are filled whenever they are empty, not just when the people inside want to watch the birds.
Second, most feeders are placed well away from the road, and songbirds don’t learn to associate cars with food. They are thus less at risk of being struck by a vehicle than an owl baited next to a road.
Third, an owl that finds a good hunting ground is reluctant to leave, meaning it is subject to the baiting for as long as the photographers will come. The birds that visit feeders have many feeding areas along a specific route that they follow daily, and the feeder is just one of many. Taking down the feeder has no effect on the songbirds; however, we don’t know for certain what happens to the owl once the baiters all leave – it is naive to assume that not one single baited bird has ever suffered adverse effects from becoming habituated to humans, only to have the humans abruptly stop providing food.
Finally, a person who puts out a bird feeder is likely the only one observing the birds. Many people go to view owls – the people baiting it usually aren’t the only ones present, but their wants seem take precedence over the wants of people who prefer to passively observe the owls. And since many birders and ethical photographers have no desire to watch or be a part of the baiting going on, they avoid the owls being baited and allow the baiters to take ownership of those owls.
In short, owls are baited to get them to do what the photographer wants, when the photographer wants, for the sake of a photo. Birdfeeders add another source of food to a bird’s territory and allow the birds to come on their own schedule.
While owls are protected by provincial law, which prohibits the harassment of raptors, the practice of baiting is a gray area. The main argument used by people who bait owls is that there is no law against it. While this is true, it is because no lawmakers could have conceived of this problem as it only became widespread with the invention of the digital camera. No one could have foreseen the sheer number of people baiting owls for photographs. Despite this argument, a Google search will bring up many, many posts against owl baiting, but very few in support of it. It is an issue in most provinces where owls spend the winter, and as a result, many nature clubs and birding organizations no longer report these owls’ locations publically, and have codes of ethics that specifically address the issue of owl harassment. It speaks volumes that so many individuals and clubs involved in the care or study of birds and wildlife are strongly against baiting, including the Owl Foundation, Canada’s longest-running owl rehab facility. Legislation that would make the practice of baiting for photographic purposes illegal would be welcomed by many local groups, including the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, the Ontario Field Ornithologists, the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre, the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre, Safe Wings Ottawa, and other local photography clubs and other groups. Doubtless there are other clubs and organizations across Canada that feel the same way, especially now that the Snowy Owl has been listed as “Vulnerable” and populations are lower than previously believed.