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Owl Baiting (Again)

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.

Yes, I’m recycling this old photo from the baiting that occurred in the Green’s Creek area of Ottawa in the winter of 2012-13, as I have actively avoided any owls being baited since that time.

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.

A white mouse is a dead giveaway that the owl has been baited to get the photo.

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.

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Costa Rica: Birding the Palo Verde area

Social Flycatcher

I hired a bird guide for two of our days in Costa Rica, and on Monday we spent half a day in the Palo Verde area. Olivier (pronounced Olive-YAIR, not O-liv-ee-ay) Esquivel of Natural Discovery was recommended to me by another tour guide who was unavailable for any one-day birding tours during our week, and has excellent reviews on several internet sites including Trip Advisor and Birdforum.net. Ollie, as we were told to call him, met us at the resort gate at 6:00 am, which isn’t as bad as it sounds since we were still operating on Eastern Daylight Time, which is two hours ahead. I liked him right away, as he managed to project both experienced professionalism and keen enthusiasm during our initial meeting, and his knowledge quickly became apparent during our time together.

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The Annual January Thaw

Great Horned Owl

For the past three days I’ve been listening to the sound of the steady drip of water from the snow melting on my roof. Almost every year we get a warm spell where the temperature climbs a few degrees above zero for a couple of days. While it is usually called the “January thaw”, sometimes it occurs in February, usually right in the middle of Winterlude. It is a welcome break from the bitterly cold days that remain well within the negative double digits. Not only does this weather make birding more pleasant – despite the heavy gray skies that usually accompany these warm spells – but birds and animals become more active, moving around instead of hunkering down against the cold.

I was hoping that this would happen on Saturday, and started my morning at the Trail Road landfill where I hoped to find at least a couple of different species of gull. Once again I found only Herring Gulls, and the only other birds present were two Red-tailed Hawks, crows and starlings. Even these seemed down in numbers.
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Migration Cools Down

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Yesterday I headed out relatively late in the morning (8:45 am) as the gray skies, cold temperature, and strong winds did not seem conducive to a productive morning’s birding. The previous week’s temperatures of the low to mid-twenties were gone; yesterday the thermometer plummeted, struggling to reach a paltry high of 9°C. It was one of those mid-spring days where a scarf, gloves, and a winter coat were necessary. I had the scarf and gloves, but didn’t bring my winter coat, thinking that my layers of sweaters beneath my spring coat would be enough. They weren’t.

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Annual Spring Trip to Point Pelee

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

On Saturday, April 30th I took the train to Kitchener to visit my mother and step-father, and on Sunday, May 1st we drove down to Point Pelee. We weren’t able to check in at the Best Western just outside of the park until the afternoon, so we headed to the Tip as soon as we arrived at 11:00. The weather was not cooperative – it was cold and overcast, with the same north winds I’d experienced in Ottawa. North winds in May are never good for migration; birds trying to fly across the Great Lakes will stay on the south side of the lakes until the winds shift from out of the south, giving them a boost across the water. Of course, north winds could also mean that any birds already in the park would likely stick around before continuing north, but this did not seem to be the case.

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Mountain Bluebird Rediscovered

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

The rare female Mountain Bluebird first discovered on November 28th on Cambrian Road went missing two days later. Just moments after its last sighting, a Sharp-shinned Hawk was seen carrying a thrush-sized bird in its talons, and as the bluebird was never seen on Cambrian Road again, it was presumed dead. This was the first time this western species has been recorded in Ottawa, and it appeared to be a sad ending for the long-distance wanderer.

Then, on December 11th, Peter Blancher – the same person who discovered the Mountain Bluebird on Cambrian Road east of Richmond – reported a female Mountain Bluebird on Century Road south of Richmond! It was too great a coincidence, and many people were happy to hear that the bluebird did not, in fact, become lunch for the hawk. As Century Road isn’t too far from me, I headed there first thing on Saturday morning just after the sun had risen. It was still hiding behind a thick bank of clouds lying on the eastern horizon when I arrived; the light was poor, but I had no problems finding the Mountain Bluebird perching on the fence right next to the road.

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A Winter Lifer

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been a long time since my last blog post. I haven’t been going out birding much this winter; the cold has been intolerable, with most mornings starting off well below -20°C. Even the daytime highs have been well below seasonal this year – I can think of only a few occasions where they have risen above -10C. In fact, this winter has been so cold that on February 25th, the Rideau Canal broke the record for the number of consecutive days it has remained open: 47, the most since it first opened 45 years ago. Normally heavy snowstorms and a rainy mid-winter thaw result in the canal’s closure for at least a couple of days each season. Not this year.

We haven’t received many heavy snowstorms since the new year, but the few that have occurred on the weekend have started early in the day. Twice I went out birding first thing in the morning and only managed to spend an hour outdoors before a curtain of snow descended. Ottawa actually hasn’t received a lot of snow this winter, but since we haven’t had any significant thaws either, the snow cover is fairly deep.

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