Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reporting Owls: The Controversy

Northern Saw-whet Owl
(Transcripts of Monday and Tuesday's For the Birds)

Last week, the listserv of the Minnesota Ornithologists Union had a heated exchange about whether or not people should post precise locations of northern owls. It’s a complicated issue. There are known cases of birds whose nests failed or who themselves died from the constant stress of hordes of birders gawking at them. In Chicago, an extremely rare Burrowing Owl turned up on Montrose Beach. So many birders turned up, each one in turn searching for the owl in the low vegetation and making it flush, that a Cooper’s Hawk flew in and grabbed it for an easy meal.

One of my favorite people, Bob Russell with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, cited some cases of what excessive pressure on birds can do. He wrote to the listserv:

Concentrations of Long-eared Owls usually require dense cover and adjacent foraging fields. Disturbing these birds from favored roosts could force a wintering owl into much less optimum habitat or lead to poorer cover where they could be preyed upon by Great Horned Owls and eagles, or harassed by crows and insensitive photographers.

Raven attacking Northern Hawk Owl

Most owls sleep during the daytime and when the noise of birders and photographers approaching too close and harassing the owl to open its eyes for a better photo, the bird obviously suffers from not being able to stay as warm as it would when it's all fluffed up and asleep. Since starvation is a factor in the death of many wintering Great Gray and Boreal owls and perhaps other owl species, even one afternoon of disturbed rest or no rest could be the difference between an owl making it or not making it through the next day. Stomping down a path through the snow to get to such roosts is not much different than beating down grass to get to a bird nest in a bush in summer. It provides an easy pathway for a 4-legged predator to approach the roost site.

Sleeping Saw-whet Owl

In my own experience, when birders flocked to the Sax-Zim Bog during the owl invasion in 2004-5, quite a few owls were killed by cars. And many birders, particularly photographers, were seen tossing out white mice and gerbils to owls, often next to roads. This is a standard practice for getting owls to fly in close for photographs, and is also used for banding certain owls, though not the ones caught in banding stations such as at Hawk Ridge, where the birds simply fly into mist nets as they migrate. I personally find baiting with live rodents to be unacceptably cruel to the little animals.

Mother and babies

People may not find rodents endearing, but they do suffer, going from a warm pet shop to being tossed out in the icy snow before being ripped apart. I sort of accept this as a necessary evil for research, because owl banding provides valuable information that helps us understand and track population trends, and has provided critical information needed to develop conservation plans. Owl banders also may provide first aid or food as they band owls, increasing their longevity. But in my mind baiting with mice is unjustifiable cruelty when it’s just for the personal pleasure or profit of getting a photo. It’s also risky. Minnesota children have contracted salmonella poisoning from pet store mice, and those children weren’t actually eating the mice. It is almost definitely more dangerous for owls.

Even worse, some photographers cast out fake mice on fishing lines to control the owl’s movements. Because of the way owls cast pellets, to conserve fluids they empty the contents of their glandular stomach before spitting up the pellet. This means that before digesting anything new, they must get those fluids back into their stomach from their bloodstream and interstitial tissues before their next meal. This process begins when they’re in pursuit of prey, and can throw an owl’s electrolytes out of kilter when it chases something it thinks is prey but comes up empty. This is particularly dangerous for owls who haven’t eaten in a while. When I rehabbed birds, I always administered fluids to emaciated owls before feeding them.

That is why I’m reluctant to post some of my own sightings of owls and other birds. But tomorrow I’ll talk about the other side of the debate.

Boreal Owl

Reporting Owls Part II

Last time I talked about a debate about whether birders should report rare owls on listservs. Because of the risks to owls, some people refuse to post exact locations of owls, and naturally some photographers and birders take umbrage. Beginning birders are especially offended that more experienced birders would keep such information secret. I can understand that viewpoint, remembering my own frustrations when I was starting out not knowing where the best places were. And to add to the frustration of novice birders nowadays, professional birding guides often know where the best birds are but may share that information only with their paying customers. This can build resentment. And knowing that experienced birders are keeping this information close to the vest also contributes to a feeling that birders are a closed community when we should be welcoming newcomers with open arms.

Northern Hawk Owl

But even as I was frustrated when starting out and not knowing where to look for birds, I got a lot of valuable field experience that made me a much better birder by searching out my own birds. I’m about to turn 60, and like any geezer have a certain nostalgia for the “good-old days” when we birders took pride in finding our own birds rather than following directions to precise locations. Even more like an old geezer, I can’t help but think that people today want too much instant gratification, expecting their life list to grow by leaps and bounds from the start. In my first year of birding, I saw just one owl—a Snowy Owl that flew right over Russ’s and my heads as we walked on Lake Shore Drive along the Chicago lakefront. My US Fish and Wildlife Service friend Bob Russell wrote:

Whatever happened to the joy of discovering your own birds? Long-eared, Northern-saw-whet, and Short-eared owls likely occur seasonally in almost any Minnesota county and I recall at least one article in the Loon in how to find your own Long-eared Owls. Check out the pine and spruce plantations and stands where you live for these owls or grape vines and dense crabtrees or young pines.

I may have been stuck finding most of my lifers when I was starting out, but then again, in my second year of birding, I got my lifer Short-eared Owls thanks to people sharing the location where the birds were hunting every evening just outside East Lansing. It took time for the word to get out back then, so staked-out birds like this could only be seen by a lot of birders when the birds stuck around for weeks rather than days or hours. We were warned to stay on the road, and back then photographers weren’t stalking these birds so intensively as they are today.

Whenever people get to see a really cool and charismatic bird, such as an owl, in the wild, it gets them excited about birds and birding. The more birders we have, the more pressure there can be to protect species that need help. And really, most of the time revealing locations for owls doesn’t harm the owls.

Northern Hawk Owl

So it’s a quandary. Flaring tempers on the listserv are like so many of today’s highly charged debates, wherein each side wants to score points rather than work to find the wisest solution for everyone. I know where I stand on the issue of baiting owls with real or fake mice—I would never consider doing it myself, and I’d never buy a photo of an owl if there was a chance the photographer had baited it. I never share information with birders I suspect of doing this, and never post on a listserv when a bird seems the least bit vulnerable. But I wish we could all state our opinions and justifications and leave people to draw their own personal conclusions, rather than ridiculing people on the other side for being selfish, either for keeping information from others or for putting birds at risk. This does nothing more than raise the temperature of an already heated debate that will never be resolved.

Great Gray Owl