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Friday, April 7, 2017

Owls, owls everywhere

What’s with all the owl sightings lately? First they started popping up in my Facebook feed. Someone snapped a pic of a Great Horned Owl on a tree in their backyard. Someone else shared a photo of a beautiful Barred Owl they spotted in the park. And then of course there was that Snowy Owl who got a close-up on a Montreal traffic camera last year. My social media feed is full of the feathered fellows.

Local media have done programs about the baiting of certain wild birds by photographers – so they could get the great shot. Is this why we are seeing so many owls? Because someone in our area has been trying to lure them? And what is the problem with that, anyway? Granted, it isn’t a very happy scenario for the tiny rodent being used as bait, but does it harm the owl?

There is a lot of money in wildlife photography if it is done well. Anything caught on film that we don’t typically see every day is a wonder to behold. The baiting of birds for this purpose can cause quite a bit of tension between photographers and birders, however. The former are trying to make a buck and a name for themselves, while the latter are trying to witness the bird in its natural habitat and behavior. Many birders are also concerned that the luring of birds with fake calls or bait will cause the animal to become too familiar and trusting of humans, who may lead them to harm, intentionally or not.

The Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club and other birding organizations have stopped posting owl sightings on their websites.  The baiting of birds is not illegal, but the concern is that the animal will in some way be harassed by the photographers. They might try to contain the bird or irritate it into opening its eyes for the shot.  Birding sites are developing and posting a Code of Conduct or ethics in an attempt to protect the birds from being bothered.

And then there is the belief that you should not interfere with wildlife or attempt to alter its behavior. The saying “a fed bear is a dead bear” is brought to mind. Owls can be quite trusting of humans and when they have found a suitable habitat, they often stay in the area. Once their location is discovered, they are at the mercy of the humans. In some cases when baited by a photographer the owls are being kept awake and prompted to hunt during the day, which is not their habit.

Some wildlife enthusiasts, on the other hand, argue that we feed other wild birds: why not owls? With live rodents as their main food source, they have been known to starve to death over a long winter. If we can help them to survive the cold, why shouldn’t we feed them? I’m not likely to go into a pet store and buy live mice for this purpose but if I knew an owl was hanging around my barn, fighting cats for mice and going hungry, I might be persuaded. The Farmer would think I was crazy, of course, putting live mice in a barn where we keep cats to control the rodent population.

I had my own owl sighting this winter. I was driving down Prince of Wales Drive, just north of Bankfield. The owl was on my left, perched atop a telephone pole. It appeared to be staring across the road at the billboard on the other side, which featured a photo of an owl, wings spread! I don’t know if owls can recognize a photo of another owl or not but if I hadn’t been in such a rush I would have pulled over and captured that spectacle on camera. I look for the bird every time I pass that spot now.
Fred Schueler of Bishop’s Mills sent me a photo of a Whet Owl that actually flew into his back porch when he left the door open a couple weeks ago. The bird might have just been seeking shelter, but it certainly knew which house to enter. Schueler is a renowned naturalist. If the owl stays around long enough, it might even get to be the subject of a painting by Fred’s partner, wildlife artist Aleta Karstad.

Whet Owl photo: Fred Schueler, Bishop's Mills

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