Five days in Quebec and I have learned.
Learned about Owls.
Learned about me.
And I must admit that what I have learned isn’t all pretty. I realize that my excuse that I did not know about the dangers of “baiting”, before my Canadian Adventure, is pretty lame.
But, I didn’t know this happened.
That’s it in a nutshell.
I have roamed the whole world taking images of birds in their natural habitat and never have I ever been faced with the issue of baiting. So, last week, I was a little slow on the pickup when I witnessed the drama unfolding in front of my eyes.
A small brown mouse with a long tail sailed through the air and landed with a confused thud on the frozen ground of the corn field. He recovered quickly and scooted across the crusted snow. My fellow photographers lined up on the diagonal and waited. Then from the corner of my eye I spotted a liftoff from the top of a tall hydro pole a quarter mile away. The round head and stubbly body of a Snowy Owl was headed my way at breakneck speed adjusting her flight path as she drew near. Then I got it.
The next moment the bird was high overhead with a little mouse clutched firmly in her talons. Then down, down, down she flew until she settled in the cornfield and dropped him at her feet. She watched her catch and sentimental me thought she looked sad. Then she nestled in the snow and had lunch.
When I arrived home from my winter holiday, I started to research the debate over baiting birds, particularly Owls. There is certainly a plethora of opinions and some fact and some fiction out there. Whatever I read, it was obvious that this was a heated topic with strong opinions held on all sides.
My sympathies are not with those who feel a birder’s right to observe, trumps the photographer’s right to make images. I do understand how these two parties would see the situation differently but for me this is the same as the dialogue that occurs between cross country skiers, snow shoe enthusiasts and snowmobilers. Who should own the trail?
Most of the articles that I reviewed seemed to come down heavily on the side of not baiting owls because of a combination of proven fact and plain observation most of which claimed the practice to be detrimental to the birds.
There is some evidence to support that store bought mice purchased as “lunch” may carry parasites and salmonella that could be harmful to the owls. Of greater concern is the fact that birds can be habituated to people who provide “free lunches” and lose their ability to hunt. Some stay too long in an area with no natural food because they are being fed. Flying north is essential to their life cycle so they must know how to hunt.
Birders and photographers frequent areas that are known to be habitat for owls. Often their observations are made from busy roads and this too puts Owls at risk of becoming traffic fatalities as they swoop to pick up bait. Their version of a Tim Horton’s drive by window is not safe! Some resources such as Scott Weidensaul , Co-director of Project Snowman has studied northern Saw-whet owls for twenty years and he claims that the owls do not need the food (bait) so why increase risks of habituation and traffic fatalities.
When I went to Quebec last week, I was excited at the prospect of seeing and photographing, primarily, Snowy Owls. Our guide did take us to a field away from traffic where the Snowy Owls were baited. I believe that the guide had taken precautions to insure that the mice he was feeding the Owls were healthy. Now that I understand more of the process, I would have to say that the Owls were, or were becoming habituated albeit in a relatively safe place removed from traffic hazards. In addition I had no reason to believe that the birders who had stopped on the adjacent roads were unable to enjoy the birds.
The only ones not enjoying the frigid mornings would have to be the mice. Not many articles on baiting speak to that. I admit that the morning before I left on this trip I unceremoniously threw two mice out my back door into a snow bank. They had been prowling my pantry and I was not amused. So I guess, the thought of mice as sentient beings was not high on my list when I trudged across the corn field and set up my camera gear.
Most of my Owl Week was not about capturing images of baited birds. It was about observing the amazing actions and reactions of magnificent Snowy Owls. It included seeing them perched on fence posts and on branches that miraculously supported their weight high up in willow trees. It was about driving country roads and starring endlessly through frosted windows trying to find them on their turf. It was watching them cruise in on their prey. It was about walking through knee deep snow in search of Saw-Whets and huddling on a country road as Short-eared Owls circled in the distance. It was about cold noses and frigid fingers. It was about trying to understand.
So , now that I am home I have thousands of images to cull. Some are from baited birds, some are not. Snowies, Saw-whets and Short-eared owls are in my collection.
Although baiting is not legally wrong in Ontario, having witnessed the practice, I think I have learned from the experience that for me, it is ethically wrong. I won’t be doing much with my baited images as incredible as they seem to me. I will post one here and print it once, to hang on my wall.
I want to remind myself that everything I do has an impact and just because I am bigger and maybe smarter, doesn’t mean I should do something that is intentionally harmful to another species for the purpose of producing a photograph.
References on Owl Baiting
The list of resources set out below provides information that may help you in taking a stand in the baiting discussion. It was first published on Michael Furtman’s website and includes opposing positions regarding the debate.
Owl Feeding Controversy Ruffles Feathers — Minnesota Public Radio
If the owl photo is fake, the viewer is being conned – Jim Williams, “Wingnut” birding column, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Outdoors photographer blasts practice of luring owls with bait — Dennis Anderson, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Baiting Owls – The Birding Project, Christian Hagenlocher
Why You Shouldn’t Feed or Bait Owls – National Audubon Society
Owl Baiting For Fun and Profit — Bird Protection Quebec
Shortcuts That Shortchange Wildlife Photography — Outdoor Photographer magazine
Bird Baiting — CBC Radio
Great Gray Owls in Ottawa: Baiting and Abetting
The purists vs. the baiters: Fowl play in Ottawa’s birding country — Ottawa Sun newspaper
Of Mice and Owls – Keith Crowley, Lodgetrail Media
The Agony and The Ecstasy of Owl Photography: Owl Baiting.
Shouting matches, crude language invade world of bucolic harmony: Ottawa’s birding community – National Post
No Baiters Allowed — Raymond Barlow
Owl Baiting radio broadcast, CBC radio, March 1, 2017
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017, ESPN Twin Cities; baiting conversation with Dennis Anderson on The Great Outdoors.