Tuesday, November 17, 2020

 Owls: So captivating. So vexing.

I've been thinking a LOT about owls and people lately, and I would like to have an open, candid, honest discussion about viewing/photographing owls. There's something so captivating, so mysterious, so alluring about owls that they bring out the best - and sometimes the worst - in people.
With social media dominating our lives, we see this played out more than ever before. It's frustrating, disturbing, and it seems impossible to ever resolve. Still, I think it's worth discussing.
Here are a few questions to help frame the discussion.
1) Are we *too* concerned about this?
I'm speaking specifically about owls in public areas: parks, wildlife areas, etc. Are we making a big deal about something the birds will just deal with themselves? Does it really harm the birds? Birds have wings and they use them. If there's too much human activity, won't they just move on? Are we spending too much time and energy on a few single birds - while global populations of birds are in peril as millions of acres of habitat are wiped off the planet? (Remember, I'm posing this as a question for discussion. This is NOT my position statement on the matter!)
A Barred Owl along a very active hiking trail. We were very close to this bird (actually it was close to us), and it did flush after a few minutes when our small group stopped to admire it.

2) Far too often, experienced / advanced birders cast shame down upon those who lack the experience to understand or judge the bird's behavior. We act as though the birds should be left alone, and yet...we've all gone out to see these magnificent animals. (Repeatedly!) What gives us the right to deny others the experience? Instead, shouldn't we do our best to encourage them to go see the bird, but give them the knowledge and the skills to do so in a responsible manner? Clearly, owls inspire people. Shouldn't we take advantage of that to draw them in and help them fall in love with all birds?
Northern Saw-whet Owl a few feet from a walking trail at Maumee Bay State Park, Visited by (at least) dozens of people, this little charmer was harassed to the point of leaving its perch during the daytime hours, all for a better photo.

3) When photos of owls are posted in Facebook birding groups -- even birds looking completely stressed and in the verge of flushing from their perch -- they receive more likes and positive comments than any other birds. This positive reinforcement of poor birding etiquette drives many others to go out and attempt to get IN YOUR FACE shots of owls, too. But, even with the most gentle, polite suggestions attempting to educate, the push back is swift and harsh. (I realize this isn't really a question, more of a conundrum that I needed to vent.)
A Long-eared Owl clearly on high alert. I took this photo many years ago, before I knew how to read the signs that I was too close. This was one of several LEOWs in a cedar tree growing right along a side road in Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area. My guess is that this bird was visited and photographed at least hundreds of times. Yet, it stayed put, continuing to roost in the same tree for several weeks.
Hard to say if the human foot traffic had an impact on it's longevity.

4) In the last decade (or so) there's been a massive effort to encourage people to take up birding. Are we doing enough to teach them how to be *responsible* birders? In addition to workshops on how to use optics and where to find birds, maybe we need to develop more robust programs that incorporate birding ethics, with a focus on problematic birds like owls.
Short-eared Owl, taken with a powerful zoom lens. Short-eared Owls never seem to be bothered by humans, as long as they stay on roads or trails. However, I have seen groups of people walking fields trying to flush them.

Again, I'm not looking for a simple solution. I'm more interested in a civil discourse on this issue, hearing and learning from others, and trying to develop my own approach. And of course I hope others will benefit from the conversation, as well.