Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 8, 2016

Feeding Gulls vs. Feeding Owls: What's the Difference?

Ivory Gull in Duluth!
Ivory Gull dining on salmon
 Ever since New Years Day, birders have been feeding the Ivory Gull that turned up in Canal Park. The bird has gorged on salmon, tuna, and other expensive fare, and in exchange has provided amazing photo ops for people who’d never had a chance to see, even at a distance, this rare species before. I’ve been within 6 feet of it myself when it dropped down to the sidewalk on the shipping canal breakwater, right next to me.

Selfie of me and the Ivory Gull!
Selfie with the Ivory Gull


Every year, I write about how irresponsible it is for birders and photographers to bring pet store mice, gerbils, and other rodents to the Sax-Zim Bog to feed the northern owls visiting there. (Yes, I know I never complain about the bird banders I know who do this. To me, the ethical issues regarding feeding birds for better looks for birding and photography purposes are entirely different from those regarding banding and other research purposes.)

What's the difference that makes it okay ethically to for birders and photographers to feed gulls but not owls? It's a simple matter of biology and bird behavior.

Owls are obligate predators of live prey. When they acclimate to humans and, even worse, when they learn to associate us with food, they become far more likely to be killed in collisions with cars and windows, to be reported as nuisance birds, or to be shot.

This opinion is not just based on a gut feeling by me. A great many research and conservation organizations staffed by the most knowledgeable ornithologists, rehabbers, and others with decades of experience with owls all affirm that feeding owls is unethical and dangerous for owls. No organization with this kind of knowledge and experience with owls endorses feeding them.

Fortunately, most northern owls aren’t particularly disturbed by the presence of large mammals in their natural habitat—they can easily elude bears—and so they are relatively easy to see and to photograph when you happen to find them. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to photograph at close range Great Gray, Northern Hawk, Boreal, and Snowy Owls without ever tossing out bait for them. All these photos were taken of wild owls that were not lured by food. Indeed, the individual birds in first three photos each caught natural prey while I was watching them!

Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owl


Northern Hawk Owl
Northern Hawk Owl


Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl


Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl


Gulls, on the other hand, and especially the Ivory Gull, are natural scavengers. The American Ornithologists’ Union and Cornell’s Birds of North America entry for Ivory Gull states, “It is an opportunistic, aggressive, and voracious feeder, and in certain circumstances can be quite tame and easily approached by people.” Regarding its food habits, the BNA goes on:
Like most gulls, an opportunistic feeder. Major prey includes sympagic (ice-associated) fish and invertebrates washed onto floes or caught nearby in surface waters. Infrequent sightings originally prompted observers to conclude that Ivory Gulls were largely dependent on scavenging feces and carcasses of polar bears, whales, walruses, and seals. Inuit hunters in High Arctic regularly observe Ivory Gulls scavenging marine mammals that hunters have just killed, and will readily scavenge bird carcasses when available. However, given remote pelagic habitats where species typically forages, reliance on offal and carrion probably exaggerated by early naturalists. 
Even if the Ivory Gull could eke out its own living on Lake Superior in the short term, before heading back to the Arctic Ocean, its behavior of checking out the birders for food wasn’t learned here in Duluth—this is the bird’s natural inclination. So as far as I’m concerned, there are no ethical caveats about providing nutritious fare for the Ivory Gull.

Anyone who thinks we should apply the exact same rules for owls and gulls is showing an abysmal ignorance of bird behavior and ecology, and a fundamental lack of common sense. There IS a difference between the groups, and all I can say is vive la diff√©rence!

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

11 comments :

  1. Thank you for this insightful information. As usual, the situation is more complex than many would like to make it. I totally agree with your analysis.

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  2. Here here for this post! Thanks for making the distinction for those who can't get there on their own. I completely agree with your well-reasoned position.

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  3. Excellent article and I agree. I can't stand selfish behavior to simply get a photograph.

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  4. Laura, I respect your expertise, experience & point of view, but I have to disagree with your assertion that owls are obligate live prey predators (this is a common 'just-so' tale that has been often repeated by well-meaning birding experts, but science illustrates something different). Snowy Owls, for example, will stock their nests with dead lemmings which feed the young, but also the adult who is guarding the nest. Snowy Owls will also occasionally be found feeding on whale carcasses as well. Great Horned Owls will feed on the carcasses of adult deer.

    While you may see an ethical difference between birders & photographers feeding owls vs. banders there really is no difference in the mind of the owl; a meal is a meal where ever it comes from. Owls are opportunists. They're not going to associate humans with food any more than they will associate any other easy food source. Given that many young owls, when out-of-range in the winter tend to starve, the handouts by birders and photographers may actually help the survival rate of many individuals (more research needs to be dome on this).

    My recommendations (and I recognize this will sound blasphemous to many birders), for those birders/photographers wanting to attract owls is to feed dead rats and mice, which can be readily purchased at a pet store. Freezing the rodents may kill any unwanted parasites/diseases (though raptors have extra strong immune systems). Additionally gently thawing the rodents in the microwave will kill any additional microbes (thawing not cooking). The benefits of using dead rodents are that most owls will already be familiar with eating dead rodents from their nest-provisioning days, the rodents won't bite the owl and potentially cause unintended infection, the rodent isn't going to run across a road causing an owl to be unintentionally hit by traffic, and the owl can decide whether it wants to approach or not.

    Where photographers and birders have to be cautious & considerate of owls is approaching them too closely, which does cause stress. It's one thing if the bird chooses to approach you closely, perhaps to accept a meal, It's another thing when someone gets out of their car and starts walking toward an owl to get close enough for their point-&-shoot or camera phone to get a picture. This can cause stress for the bird and may mean other birders won't get the chance to see the bird as well.

    I apologize for the dissenting view, but I think when done wisely feeding all birds can be a positive experience for both birds and humans and can lead to memorable, life-changing experiences as well as increase survival for many bird species.

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    Replies
    1. Excellent points here.... I also find it strange how one of the Ivory Gulls has died and another one is dying. Is it a coincidence that people are feeding these particular gulls every single day? That one gull dying is already more than I have ever witnessed or heard of in the case of owls. I've heard speculation that feeding owls kills them but not one real case has been brought to my attention. People feed all kinds of birds all the time and try to separate it from feeding owls but there really is no difference. If you are against feeding one, you should be against feeding the other. Otherwise you are being hypocritical.

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    2. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the gull that was found dead in Superior had even once appeared at Canal Park where the gull feeding happens. Every photo of the gull at Canal Park that showed the head showed some specific gray marks--none provided any evidence of two gulls at Canal Park, coming separately.

      It's interesting that so many people seem to really believe that all species are alike. Complexity is not easy for simple minds to deal with.

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  5. I've never heard anyone say there is no difference between owls and gulls. I do think, however, that broad strokes have a tendency to oversimplify. Feeding an owl next to a busy road with lots of traffic and visiting birders is almost certainly not a good idea. One person feeding an owl far from people and busy roadways is probably less potentially damaging to the bird than feeding an Ivory Gull near an oil spill. Luring a family of predatory Bewick's Wrens to a mealworm feeder in a backyard with windows, cats, and Cooper's Hawks might not be the best for them, either. Thousands of albatrosses and pelicans are killed every year by fishing operations, yet I've never heard a birder complain that chumming off the back of a boat on a pelagic is unethical. Why is that? Isn't it bad that these birds are associating boats with food? General guidelines can be very helpful, but I also believe there exceptions to be made in most cases (like you have done for banders of owls). Life is seldom black and white, and not everyone's ethics are the same, Using terms like "abysmal ignorance", "irresponsible", and "lack of common sense" to describe people who may disagree with you regarding an ethical question (which by definition has no empirically correct answer) isn't going to bring them around to your side, which ostensibly is why this piece was written. It's much more likely to automatically put them into a defensive posture and be less likely to hear--let alone believe--what you have to say. I think you'll be more successful in changing minds if you use less combative language.

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  6. You suggest that because the Ivory Gull is a scavenger, it is okay to provide it with food. If that is the case, what about the species described below?

    "Can also be an opportunistic feeder and concentrate where local prey is abundant (Bent 1938, Boxall and Lein 1982a, Mikkola 1983, Robinson and Becker 1986, Detienne et al. 2008).

    "Will also eat carrion such as walrus, seal, fox, fish, or dead animals caught in traps (Voous 1988, DWH, N. Smith pers. comm.). Insects and crustaceans also found in pellets (N. Smith, pers. comm.). Has been observed scavenging recently killed Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and bringing pieces to a nesting female (DWH). During the Arctic winter, may scavenge Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) kills. Importance of scavenging to the overall diet needs further study."

    I found this on BNA, describing the food habits of Snowy Owls. If I follow your logic, it should be okay to feed Snowy Owls (albeit with something already dead).

    Ivory Gulls can be "quite tame and easily approached by people," and since this is their nature, it is okay to feed them. Of course you could also describe some owl species in the same way, but the inference is the opposite in that case. Obviously approaching a Saw-whet Owl is behaviour which induces stress (which may not always be visible to the observer), and as a result this behaviour is unacceptable. Why then do you assume that gull species do not experience stress? Why do you assume that it isn't stressful to induce the bird into close proximity with people by way of offering it food? If it is bad to stress out the owl, how is it not bad to stress out the gull?

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  7. One more brief comment: Thank you, Laura, for saying "feeding owls" rather than "baiting owls" in this post. The latter is a loaded term that means "luring with food with intent to capture/detain", as is done with an earthworm on a hook, and strongly implies malicious intent.

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  8. As much as I like you Laura I have to disagree with you on your intent when you wrote this blog piece. Anyone can rationalize any subject to make their point.

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