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.
Owls have a power to fascinate us that no other birds do. They seem to dwell in a realm that lies somewhere between the natural and the mythological, representing a wilderness untamed and untouched by human hands. When you chance upon one and stare into the solemn, unsettling eyes of a Barred Owl or the bright, glaring yellow eyes of a Great Horned Owl, you know you are in the presence of something utterly inhuman – and inhumanly beautiful. These sleek, silent, feathered predators captivate our imaginations, possibly because they are so infrequently seen, and possibly because of the aura of mystery that surrounds them…especially those that dwell in the woods where their cryptic camouflage and nocturnal habits make them difficult to spot.
While some eastern North American owls remain on their breeding territories all year round, including the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl and Barred Owl, other species are migratory and may be found more easily in the fall and winter as they move through urban and suburban areas to their wintering grounds. These species, which include Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the four northern species – Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl – typically move south in response to food shortages on their breeding grounds or, in the case of last winter’s spectacular Snowy Owl irruption, a population boom that led to an increase in competition for the same food resources. Younger owls, having no territories of their own, were pushed much farther south than normal in order to find a place to spend the winter.
Eastern Screech Owl
Mud Lake, 2010
Last winter, when inclement weather resulted in a lack of fresh material for my blog, I started a series about my favourite birding places in the Ottawa area. It’s a series I am hoping to expand, and once upon a time I would have definitely included a post about the feeders on Hilda Road. Well, after five years of visiting the feeders, the story I feel compelled to write is not about why Hilda Road is my favourite place, but rather why it’s a place I no longer enjoy visiting.
I first became aware of the Hilda Road feeders in December 2006 after seeing them described as “a must to visit in winter” on NeilyWorld and hearing another birder talk about them. Located on NCC land near Shirley’s Bay, the feeders are situated in a rural area where cottages existed many years ago before eventually being demolished. For many decades a few dedicated individuals have kept the feeders on Hilda Road filled during the winter months at their own expense, for no other reason than to enjoy watching the birds and animals they attract.