Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Baiting Owls

Northern Hawk Owl

When Russ and I were living in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 70s, there was an invasion of northern owls into the Duluth area, and a lot of my friends drove up one weekend to see their lifer Boreal, Great Gray, and Northern Hawk Owls. I was sick with the flu and missed the trip, but from then on always associated northeastern Minnesota with incredible owls. After Russ earned his Ph.D. and had a few job offers, I lobbied for the one up here because of all those owls. 

I’m not the only one who equates Duluth winters with wondrous owls—year after year, people from every state and several foreign countries come up, hiring guides or combing the Sax-Zim Bog on their own, all in search of owls. In 1998, three men competed in a record-setting Big Year memorialized in the movie The Big Year—all three of them came to Duluth to get their owls. As digital photography and social media have grown in popularity, the fame of our owls has mushroomed.

When people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see and/or photograph an owl, and then spend a frigid winter day in a remote bog, they want a payoff. But more and more, this wanting has evolved into a sense of entitlement. Now many people arrive here armed with bait, so when they do spot an owl, they can easily lure it in for close-ups and thrilling flight shots. Some professional birding guides (not the local ones that I know of) use bait so their participants will get incredible instead of ordinary views, and a great many photographers do this. 

They use two kinds of bait—live rodents and dead or fake ones at the end of a fishing line. When they spot an owl, they toss a hapless mouse or gerbil out onto the snow, or cast out a fake one and reel it in. Our winter owls are astonishingly alert—they almost always fly in instantly when they spy a rodent, instant gratification for the photographer that reinforces the practice. 

Some birders and photographers don’t see a problem at all. Some have enough misgivings about the ethics that they are secretive about doing it. And some twist arguments to act as if baiting is perfectly fine, or if not, is no worse than setting out bird feeders for songbirds.

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins

Baiting owls is not at all comparable to traditional bird feeding. Americans have been offering breadcrumbs and seed to birds since before the time of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. Little by little, we’ve learned that some practices are harmful—for example, we know that wet seed in spring can provide a medium for botulism and other pathogens, that wet corn and peanuts can become contaminated with aflatoxins, and that bread doesn’t provide enough nutrition for most birds and can encourage House Sparrows, starlings, and rodents. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which encourages backyard bird feeding, has conducted decades of research into best practices, and disseminates a huge body of accessible information far and wide to ensure that backyard bird feeding is as healthy for the birds as it is enjoyable for people. 

No one has thoroughly researched any best practices with regard to owl baiting. All we have are anecdotes. Most photographers and birders who lure owls claim never to have seen any bad effects, but many impartial observers have witnessed owls hurt or killed directly or indirectly due to baiting, and so the preponderance of data is clearly against the practice. The Raptor Center in St. Paul, the OwlFoundation, the Raptor Education Group, and Project SNOWstorm, world-class organizations with a thorough understanding of owls, are all on record opposing baiting, except by licensed bird banders or to trap individual owls to remove them from a dangerous situation or bring them to a rehab facility. 

Baiting owls with fake mice is a horrible practice, immediately harmful to the owls. Owls cast pellets consisting of felted fur and all the bones and other indigestible matter in their prey. These pellets are formed in their lower stomach—the muscular gizzard—and must pass through the glandular stomach and esophagus to be spit out. These organs are emptied of fluids before the owl regurgitates the pellet. Before swallowing the next meal, the owl "primes the pump" by siphoning off body fluids back into these organs, which is accomplished as the owl spies and closes in on prey. Doing this and then coming up empty, as always happens when the owl chases a decoy, is very harmful, especially for owls that are hungry and growing dehydrated. When this is repeated over and over, as many photographers do for more photos, it's extremely frustrating for the poor owl as well as potentially destructive.

There are also many reasons why luring owls with live rodents is bad for the owls. First, owls that are baited quickly learn to associate people with food, sometimes leading to extremely dangerous situations for both people and birds. And most baiting is done from roadsides, luring owls in to immediate danger. Last year, one photographer actually tried luring a Boreal Owl across busy Highway 61 so he’d have better light for photography, despite the fact that Boreal Owls seldom fly above the height of logging trucks. Considering that a primary cause of mortality for owls in winter is collisions with cars and trucks, this was unconscionable.

In 1997, when a Boreal Owl turned up at the Springbrook Nature Center in Minnesota, the staff, concerned about the bird and thrilled about so many birders coming to see it, started providing daily handouts. The vast majority of the bird's pellets that winter consisted of white mice raised at the facility--it was feeding on very little natural food all season, but fortunately, the mice were raised at the nature center. When spring arrived, the owl didn't migrate north according to a post by Michael Hendrickson on MOU-net in 2009.  I'd defended the feeding in 1997 because it was an exceptional situation--it was Mike Hendrickson's information and apparent inside knowledge about the fate of the bird that led me to think even that exceptional circumstance might not have warranted artificial feeding. Regardless, though, that was indeed an exceptional situation.

Northern owls seem far less fearful of people than most birds, often not fleeing until people have come within a few feet. There is no evidence that most of these species are the least bit tame, or associating people with food--they are simply trusting to their cryptic coloration and saving energy. Many spend their lives in remote areas where large mammals aren't particularly interested in them, so are less fearful than most birds. Northern Hawk Owls often actually approach people, whether or not the birds have been baited. They seem to share with Gray Jays the inclination to follow large predators in case they can capitalize on a feeding opportunity—there are records of them grabbing snipe shot by hunters before the hunters could retrieve them. I've taken many closeup photos of hawk owls, including the one at the top of this post, without ever baiting. I've also photographed them catching voles and other prey, no baiting involved.

When Boreal Owls descend on the North Shore of Lake Superior in winter, they are sometimes so hungry that they abandon their normal nocturnal habits and hunt by day. Photographing them is quite possible without baiting.

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Pet store rodents are notorious for carrying salmonella. The Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control have published accounts of children contracting salmonella, including multidrug-resistant strains, from pet store mice, rats, and hamsters. The affected children had merely played with and sometimes kissed their little pets—as predators that consume the entire bodies of their prey, owls are even more vulnerable to swallowing pathogens. Of course, as natural predators feeding on raw meat, owls are more resistant to salmonella than we humans, but two species that are baited extremely aggressively by photographers, Great Gray and Boreal Owls, are typically most conspicuous when they are physiologically stressed, with their immune system already compromised—this is when they would be most vulnerable to disease organisms.

Mother and babies

My focus has always been on birds, but I’m also partial to rodents. It’s ironic that I’d consider the feelings of the little mice tossed onto the snow, considering that I myself thaw out a mouse every night for my education screech-owl Archimedes. But the frozen mice I purchase were raised and then killed humanely and in clean circumstances so are guaranteed not to harbor diseases, and I still feel sad about them. The ones tossed out on the snow are kept warm and cozy right up to the moment someone grabs them out of a cage and throws them onto the frozen landscape. Then, in the best-case scenario, they get grabbed and devoured before they have time to think. In the worst-case scenario, they escape, but are lost, bewildered, and cold. If they manage to survive, that introduces another exotic species and its attendant parasites and germs into the natural landscape.

Some photographers justify baiting owls by claiming that their photos are valuable for conservation and environmental education, when in reality many of these photos actually promote misinformation. One photo showing a Great Gray Owl closing in on a mouse won awards and was conspicuously displayed on the National Geographic and Nature Conservancy websites, even though it was a house mouse on the surface of the snow—something that would simply never happen in a wild situation. Over 90 percent of a Great Gray Owl’s normal diet consists of meadow voles, which never walk on the surface of deep snow—they construct tunnels at ground level under grass, so even when there is no snow cover at all, voles stay out of sight. Unfortunately, by posting the photo, these organizations were misinforming people about the way Great Gray Owls normally hunt, and also providing misinformation about rodents. Suggesting in a photo that a hamster or white mouse or brown house mouse is part of a wild owl’s normal diet hardly promotes education. Unfortunately, magazine editors don’t always recognize these unnatural situations themselves. Photographers claiming to be photographing the natural world should not be using such unnatural set ups.

In some cases, baiting owls interferes with research that is providing important information about owls. Scientists from the Northeast and Great Lakes areas participating in the brand new Project SNOWstorm are affixing GPS-GSM transmitters to Snowy Owls and then tracking them via the Internet. Each transmitter costs $3,000. In this, the inauguration year of Project SNOW Storm, we’ve already amassed a huge body of information about Snowy Owl movements, activities, and what habitats they’re drawn to. But one bird bearing one of these expensive transmitters in Ramsey County, Minnesota, is being persistently baited by photographers, who have been giving it so much food that it’s simply staying put. Scott Weidensaul of Project SnowStorm wrote a comment on the project blog:

We're aware of the situation in Ramsey, and very concerned about it. Jim [Williams] of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has been writing about it, among others. The photographers feeding pet store mice to the owls are creating a situation in which the birds are becoming increasingly habituated to humans, which in a congested, suburban environment is especially risky. There's also the fact that Project SNOWstorm has invested thousands of dollars and a lot of collaborator effort in tagging Ramsey in order to learn how a wild snowy owl lives -- not to track a bird that's being fed by photographers too lazy to wait for natural behavior. It was our understanding that most of the feeding is targeted at the other, untagged snowy owl and not Ramsey, but that appears to be changing -- and it's not justified in either case. While it's not illegal, it is wrong, and we urge the photographers who are tossing mice to these owls to please stop.
The project website started out displaying real-time movements of the birds, but because photographers were using the information to rush in and bait them, Project SNOWstorm had to start putting a 3-day delay on the tracking maps. Photographers, birders, and bird guides baiting these or any owls are compromising important conservation or education work, not providing anything of value except to their own egos and pocketbooks.

As a former licensed rehabber who handled lots of owls, as someone who has lived with my licensed education screech-owl for 14 years, and as someone who studied bird digestion (specifically nighthawks and owls) during my ill-fated Ph.D. project, this area is something I do have some small bit of expertise in. By next winter, the Minnesota DNR will have new regulations in place prohibiting owl baiting. And in my considered opinion, that’s the way it should be.

Snowy Owl


  1. "By next winter, the Minnesota DNR will have new regulations in place prohibiting owl baiting. And in my considered opinion, that’s the way it should be." I find it disturbing but a necessity to do this but what about using fake mice and toys? If there is a will/money there is a way. Also,"One photo showing a Great Gray Owl closing in on a mouse won awards and was conspicuously displayed on the National Geographic and Nature Conservancy websites" shame on them! They do an injustice and add fuel to this fire and should have an accountability to the public.Another, "Photographers, birders, and bird guides baiting these or any owls are compromising important conservation or education work, not providing anything of value except to their own egos and pocketbooks", i think though this is valuable information as it brings this practice to the forefront and if they are truly gathering information then you gather it all and this is information. Good though provoking article Laura and your love and passion for these creatures shows in your words.

  2. Laura, thanks for your article. Here, in province of Quebec, we do havre a big problem with baiting owls. I am trying to educate people, specially photographers, but I think many photographers do not want to understand.

  3. Great piece Laura - I own a retail store and found out about a very popular author bating the owls in Duluth and made the decision to stop carrying any of his product. Has it hurt my bottom line? Yes but I have morals!

  4. "Some professional birding guides use this bait so their participants will get incredible instead of ordinary views, and a great many photographers do this."

    My name is Mike Hendrickson and I am a professional bird guide for the northeastern area of Minnesota. I have been guiding birders for nearly 30 years and all my clients come from all over the United States and some European countries as well. I am in constant communications with all the other local guides ( Erik, Sparky, Frank, Kim R. Kim E. and Chris ) because for the most part we share our sightings among us and we tend to run into each other per week with our clients in Sax-zim Bog or other locations in northeastern Minnesota. I can honestly say with out hesitation and as God as my witness that there is NOT one professional guide in northeastern Minnesota that carries mice with them for the purpose of feeding the owls to bring them closer to our clients. NOT ONE! I have talked to them all and I know this to be fact.

    I do not know where Laura you gotten this idea that we feed mice to owls to bring them in closer to our clients when the fact is we do not feed the owls mice. Also as far as I know myself and those that I listed are the only working guides in Minnesota and I am a little frustrated that you included us guides in this blog posting.

    As for readers: All of the professional guides in Minnesota DO NOT carry mice with them while they are guiding clients except maybe Frank N. who is a raptor bander and uses mice for banding only. All of guides in my experience have done a lot of good of promoting birding for the Sax-Zim Bog area and other parts of NE MN and also catering to all the local restaurants, cafes, lodging areas in Duluth and in Sax-Zim Bog. We have contributed in a lot of positive ways and for Laura to say we carry mice was a terrible thing to assume when the truth is we do not carry mice with us!

    Mike Hendrickson
    Duluth, MN

    1. MIke Hendrickson- I was going to send this blog to you based on our recent conversations on facebook. I have taken the liberty to refresh your memory and copy some of what you said in support of bating here. While you also said on the thread you do not carry mice, you do enjoy the activity and share it with your clients. That's a pretty fine line. Note- you were not responding to myself, but another post on the page.

      "Debbie I hear ya! Last weekend I ran into some photographers, they asked me and my group would it be ok for them to give the owl a mouse and my birding group said "YES we would love to watch this" In fact all my birding clients from all over the US when I ran into photographers feeding the Hawk Owl or a Great Gray Owl wanted to view this event. So I leached on and placed myself in position and took some photos of the owls coming into the mouse. I personally do not carry mice because they reek and can smell a car up real quick and my wife would not love the smell of mice urine in our SUV. But given a chance to be part of a crew dropping a mouse I do it all the time and like I say all my clients ( birders with cameras ) all found the experience educational and exciting too."

      There was a lot of support for baiting on that thread from people in MN. I'm thrilled at Laura's blog that points brings to light the harm this does and the ban on baiting next year.

    2. Michael Hendrickson isn't entirely consistent about this issue. He was awarded an MOU award a few years ago for his principled stand on owl baiting. Here is the link to a post he made to the MOU listserv regarding the topic in November 2011:

  5. Thank you for thinking about the rodents. Once you adopt/rescue a pet rat or mouse, you will never look at another small creature the same way.
    One way to help end this behavior is to require the photographer, supplying an image of the owl, to state that any form of baiting was not used in the creation of that photograph. I would also like people to be more open about exposing who is baiting especially if they actually witnessed the behavior. Too often they make a vague reference to someone and unless they are exposed they will probably carry on with the practice.

  6. Wonderful post. I, too, feel for the prey of any creature, but accept it when it is a natural part of life. But baiting an owl, or any other creature is just plain wrong, especially for selfish means. I'm a novice birder and an amateur photographer, and I would never consider either of these tactics. Not only is this tactic cruel, it is straight out cheating.

  7. Laura --

    I applaud the article clearly written from a place of caring about the fate of individual birds and conservation in general.

    There has been, is and probably will continue to be an inherent conflict between those to care for the birds and those who profit from them. I decline to characterize them as birders, birding guides or photographers since that distinction will vary based on who is making it and we should judge people on their individual merits vs their membership in a group. That said, we should not be resigned to that conflict. There is significant history amongst these groups which should lead us to be optimistic about the future of coexistence between those who live for the birds and those who make a living off them.

    These words have been repeated in related and similar forms in articles and blog musing over and over - with exasperated folks on one side of the fence berating those on the other for not hearing their arguments (or hearing but not listening). If we recognize that despite the differences, conservation minded people can be actually found across the spectrum of birders/tour leaders/photographers/biologists/government officials etc we could stop spinning our wheels about the far fewer malevolent folks out there and spend time figuring out why the conversation thus far as proven far from convincing to folks who are actually conservation minded.

    There is a flip side to every argument, and a preponderance of anecdotal evidence remains anecdotal at best. The lack of scientific evidence is hurting the case against baiting and it is perhaps high time to move this into the mainstream of scientific study and peer reviewed evidence. Not only as the first step towards pushing for regulations and laws, but also a basis of reasonable discussion with people who have a difference of opinion but are willing to listen.

  8. Wonderful post Laura. Well stated, well argued.

  9. Thank you for this very educational post, Laura. With this year's amazing snowy owl irruption, I have been reading posts about the baiting issue all winter. I am familiar with, and support, all the arguments you present against baiting except the one about the owls emptying their digestive organs of fluid as they cast pellets and replenishing in anticipation of a meal. I think anyone who has ever seen a bird of prey suffering from severe hydration, or in fact anyone who has ever had acid indigestion, should be able to form a very clear idea why this argument alone should be sufficient to make owl baiting illegal. Thanks again!

  10. Great post Laura. I'm birder/photographer who waits in the cold for hours in hopes of an image and am happy for the time spent in the presence of these beautiful birds regardless if there is a good image at the end of the day. It makes getting a good shot all the more gratifying. I'm horrified there are so many participating in baiting. I didn't even know that practice existed. Shame on anyone who puts their desire for a good picture before the well being of these magnificent birds.

  11. Fantastic post, Laura. Really well done on all counts.
    About the guides--they themselves may not carry the mice or throw them out--but don't they allow the people they are guiding to do so? Isn't that just as much a problem? Just wondering how it works as I have never been to that area.

  12. I don't think any of the guides up here would permit their birding clients to bait--I think the only clients that would be likely to bring bait would be photographers, and I honestly don't know what anyone's policies are when taking photographers around.

  13. My policy regarding comments is that they should not be self-promoting regarding professional services unless that is pertinent (it was very pertinent for Mike Hendrickson to identify himself as a guide because he was speaking in his professional capacity), should be reasonably polite even when taking issue with the original post or other comments, and can't be provocative by shedding more heat than light on a subject. I'm very interested in making my own work as sound and accurate as possible, and take criticism very seriously, but demand basic courtesy and fairness in comments or I just delete them rather than approving them.

  14. Excellent information, laura.

  15. I have made two changes to my original post--I took out the photo that was originally on top, because some people, justifiably, took issue with my showing photographers that weren't baiting (just approaching too close, in a no-trespassing, protected dunes area). And I deleted the disclaimer paragraph at the beginning. I know this is a contentious issue, and I'm sorry for stirring the pot during a hard, bitter winter, but I do have some expertise on certain elements of the issue and felt it important to make my points. I do moderate comments on my blog, but only one person has, so far, made any negative comment and I decided to publish his comment rather than my own disclaimer and leave it at that. If people take issue with my blog with reasoned arguments about any of my points, I'll be more than happy to post their comments, but I will not publish rude diatribes that don't make a reasoned argument justifying baiting. I'm a strong proponent of dialog, but refuse to provide a forum for nastiness.

    1. I also added a couple more paragraphs about how sometimes northern owls seem "tame," baited or not, and about how we can get great photos without baiting.

  16. And consider that bird banders and other types of researchers must obtain permits and follow specific procedures when capturing birds, as do falconers and wildlife rehabbers. As you point out, many well known birding organizations support and encourage traditional bird feeding while I am unaware of any birding/rehab organization come out in support of baiting. Also I have yet to meet any baiting apologist who has ever been involved in wildlife rehab. Either a person cares about the welfare of the bird first and foremost, or they view it as a commodity to be exploited. It's as simple as that.

  17. Thank your so much for this post. I have been agains owl baiting, because it is wrong in my mind. It is nice to now know WHY it is wrong and the harm it DOES do. Shame on the photographers who continue this ill fated practice!

  18. Comments here are restricted to opinions about baiting owls, not other issues.

  19. Hi Laura,

    Congratulations on your recent Roger Tory Peterson Award...very impressive. Interesting blog. When I first read it, I too thought that you were inferring that local guides were involving themselves in feeding local owls. I was not surprised to see Mike Hendrickson, aka The Bogfather, react as he did. I commend you on the revisions you have made in attempting to clear up that miscommunication. I have a few questions that I would like to ask...
    1: Can you give specifics on twenty cases where owls in Minnesota, in the last five years, have directly or indirectly died due to people feeding them...birders or photographers...? You undoubtedly have access to information that I don't have as inferred by this comment: "but many impartial observers have witnessed owls hurt or killed directly or indirectly due to baiting"....Anectdotally, I have fed a number of owls in the last five years and have not seen any evidence of the owls being harmed. Conversely, I have fed hundreds of song birds during that time and have seen a small number of birds be killed by hawks and shrikes at the feeder, as well as being killed due to window strikes near the feeders....
    2: How is feeding meal worms to blue birds not comparable to feeding mice to owls?
    3 I have a Reader's Digest field guide that is over 20 years old that shows the House Mouse's having a year round range that covers the entire lower forty eight states. The house mouse or Mus Musculus, has a range that extends into southern Canada. Why is it inconceivable that a great gray owl would not take a house mouse as prey in the wild? Particularly more likely when large numbers of owls push south during irruption years....
    4: Can you give specifics on the "humane" way in which over 5,000 mice have died to feed your (truly cute!) educational owl? "Humane" sounds Disney to me....
    5: Can you understand why someone like myself will have a difficult time with the idea of the DNR banning feeding mice to owls, but then the same organization promotes the killing of wolves, sandhill cranes, and mourning doves in this state? The promoting of killing wolves, cranes, and doves was political no? Influential people promoting their agendas with influential people within the

    1. Thought provoking post. I read it with great interest and felt it was open-minded.

  20. 1) Twenty is an arbitrary number, as is five years. I allowed my rehab license to expire before that time period--it was when I was rehabbing that I personally was brought birds hit by cars, and I didn't keep all my records to remember specifically which of them had been being baited. So the answer is, no.

    2) Feeding bluebirds originated to benefit the bluebirds during bad weather in spring. The people doing it at first were part of bluebird conservation organizations, and the practice was found to raise the number of bluebirds nesting in areas where spring mortality had been taking a toll. If owl baiting was done the way bluebird feeding is--putting a bunch of mice in a feeder and allowing the birds to come or not, specifically to benefit the owl rather than enrich the photographer, the situations might be comparable. But no studies have been done to establish that owl populations benefit, and on the contrary, the one marked Boreal Owl fed for a season at the Springbrook Nature Center did not benefit--that bird did not return to its breeding grounds in spring and was removed from the wild population. Not one owl conservation group promotes owl feeding, and all that I am familiar with say the practice is bad. If an actual study can be done showing the practice helps populations, as has been done in the case of bluebirds, that would change my mind.

    3) House mice are not native to North America--they are invasive exotics. And like all animals, they are found within certain habitats and not others. Just as one would virtually never find a meadow vole in a house in Brooklyn, one would virtually never find a house mouse in a northern bog, and where one might appear in a bog, it would not appear anywhere away from houses and barns. Again, this is an invasive exotic species with no place in some of the wildest areas of Minnesota.

    4) The mice I feed Archimedes are killed by carbon dioxide--presumably using dry ice. The sensation they feel is presumably that felt by humans exposed to the same gas--enormous sleepiness.

    5) Yes, I can understand that. And I share your frustration that no matter what the DNR's stand on the issue is, it will be strongly influenced by emotional people appealing to them. In this case, the moneyed interests are photographers and other professionals who make their living by getting close to owls, but in either case, the decision should be based on whether the practice benefits owls, not people.

    Although this issue seems black-and-white to me, Minnesota wildlife are confronted with a lot of other problems which are much larger than this one. Whether or not regulations are enacted and enforced, my hope is that some photographers and some publishers of their work will take a stand against baiting.

    I'll know my stand should be revised when owl conservation organizations with no vested interest in anything except promoting the well-being of owls find that the practice is not harmful in the longterm based on tracking identifiable individuals. Perhaps photographers who agree with you could band together to start your own transmitter project, similar to Project SNOWstorm, to track longterm the birds being baited.

    1. Well reasoned and courteous discussion was very much appreciated.

      Just his week I saw my second owl in CT. I wanted or see it again of course.

      I had considered how I may accomplish this being an impatient person by nature. I was contemplating research on the subject, when simultaneously a magnificent picture of an owl was posted on "Connecticut Birds". Later that morning it was identified as a baited capture if a raptor, and shunned a by members. The spirited debate there sorkes my visit to this wonderful blog.

      I have decided to limit our winter feeding to the birds, and leave the owls and hawks to their own accord.

      The suggestion that photographers claiming to be photographing the natural world should not be using such unnatural means is spot on. My Dad was a professional portrait photagraher. Who by the way, never asked anyone to say cheese.

  21. Laura,

    Thank you for the detailed response. This will be my last reply, as I don't care to have you feel like I'm harassing you. Your answer to my first question was disappointing. You use strong language in this blog, making clear links between death and injury to owls and feeding them, but when asked for specific give none, then dismiss my nominal time frame and numbers as "arbitrary"...Nice. Your answer to number two was better. However, one thing that you (and others) continuously seem to overlook is that feeding birds is mostly done for the benefit of the birds AND the people who feed them. If this were not the case, feeders would be off in the woods, miles from people's homes...not in their backyard, where they could be viewed from a window. Bird feeding back yards is every bit as "selfish" and beneficial for the bird feeder as feeding owls is to the photographer. Decent answer to number three, but rarely does anyone that opposes feeding owls mice acknowledge that house mice have colonized the lower forty eight many many years ago. They already exist near the houses, farms, and out-buildings at the one is going to "introduce" anything that is not already there. Your answer to number four is the most perplexing to me of all. You somehow have rationalized it out, that it's okay for (someone else) to kill the over 5000(!) mice, by gassing them to death, for you to feed your educational owl, but me feeding a few dozen mice each year to wild owls in Minnesota should be banned. Incredible. Laura, I'd be willing to bet that your owl is virtually a family member now. Your love and commitment to it is admirable. But how can you play on people's emotions on this blog by posting a cute picture of a furry white mouse and suggest the cruelty of feeding them to owls, when you have condoned the death of over 5000 cute mice, in order to have an owl live in your house???? I liked your answer to number five. Again, thanks for taking the time. And please try to understand, that I feed owls because I like to feed birds. I do not differentiate between a chickadee, the shrike that eats the chickadee, or the owl that eats a mouse. The photography is a secondary gain. I have fed numerous owls and have never seen any harm come of it.
    Shawn Zierman.

  22. After being in high school debate for four years (Russ was my partner for three of them--we went undefeated our senior year), I lost my taste for arguing for the sake of arguing. I am always willing to change my mind based on sound new information. The new information that could lead me to change my stand here is an actual scientific study establishing that owls are not harmed by baiting and, if it should parallel other bird feeding methods, establishing that individual owls actually benefit in the long term from it. I have other ethical concerns, but this would go a long way in persuading me. I would think photographers would jump at the possibility of that, but already we do have one Snowy Owl in Ramsey, MN, bearing a transmitter whose winter movements have been changed because of baiting--at least, that is the only one of the 15 bearing Project SNOWstorm transmitters who is not moving about.

    I have been out of town or busy so much of the past 10 years or so, and now we have a wildlife rehab clinic in Duluth, so I am no longer called regarding dead or injured owls. During the time I was rehabbing, I was brought or picked up at least one each Northern Hawk-Owl, Great Gray Owl (I know there were actually several of these) and Boreal Owl (at least two) that were hit by cars that were being actively baited by photographers. In my actual records, I only recorded the kind of trauma--car collision--so have no better records than my poor 62-year-old memory to rely on beyond that. It is fair, by high school debate rules, to call me on not having provable cases. But I think that in trying to find the actual truth, it's a little unfair to discount the cases I know of. If owl baiting were really safe, why hasn't any photographer been able to point to a single owl conservation organization or raptor rehabilitation center that supports it?

    In at least two cases, I was brought a saw-whet and boreal owls that people had been feeding for several days or weeks in their yards (I don't remember which was days and which was weeks) that were subsequently found dead in those yards, away from windows and wires. Those birds may well have become sickened by the mice. They were brought in to whoever was collecting carcasses those years, but no necropsies were done that I'm aware of to establish whether they may have been sickened by the mice. Again, no proof. But again, it's troubling--a carefully crafted scientific study might give us data that would prove me wrong and establish that baiting isn't harmful in this respect.

    Most people do, indeed, enjoy feeding the birds that live in their neighborhoods, and also want to help those birds that live in their neighborhoods. This is why they don't build their bird feeders in the woods--those would be benefitting OTHER birds, not the ones that live in their neighborhoods. That really does seem a no-brainer, doesn't it? And, again, we have scientific studies that have shown that some birds, such as chickadees, have lower winter mortality where they are fed than where they aren't. Where are the studies that show this for baited owls? I do agree that my enjoyment of my backyard chickadees is selfish. But I follow "best practices" so they won't be harmed, and do benefit, from my enjoyment of them. I devoted a huge, long section of my book 101 Ways to Help Birds to teaching people about these best practices. Where is there a similar work showing people best practices for baiting owls? Who has studied this?

    Do you think it would be reasonable to bait owls in NYC with rats, since rats can be found there anyway? That is a logical extension of your argument, and again, you really seem to have no understanding of the ecology of house mice. If I were in high school debate mode, I'd ask if that 20-year-old Readers Digest book provided the extent of your understanding of ecology.
    (Cont'd in next comment)

  23. It would be illegal for me, or for the original rehab facility where he came from, to release Archimedes, because he'd become imprinted during the care from his original illness as a chick. Without feeding him the mice I purchase, guaranteed to have been killed humanely and to not harbor diseases, he would starve. I repeat, he would starve. Wild owls have natural food available to them through the natural means of hunting in the natural world.

    I'm glad there are some areas of agreement, and do realize that you love owls, too. But I want some evidence, based on scientific studies or well-documented anecdotal tracking of individual owls to establish that baited owls have as much long-term success as has been proven with individually marked chickadees fed at feeders. I agree that this would have been impossible to prove in previous decades, but we now do have the means, albeit expensive, of using satellite transmitters to track birds during the time they're present and after they leave in winter. I love harmony and for people who love birds to all get along, and would be very open to and even welcome any sound, impartial proof that feeding wild owls helps them. I just haven't seen any. Yet.

  24. Sometimes with these discussions I feel like we probably all agree on about 90%, but since this is the internet that 10% is where all the heat happens. Let's see, do we all agree that if we are standing on a road with 10 other birders enjoying the view of a Northern Hawk Owl in a nearby tree, waiting to maybe catch a glimpse of it catching a vole, and someone pulls up and tosses it a white mouse to snap action shots....he's being a jerk? I do. I don't personally think he's affecting the population of hawk-owls, but that doesn't matter. It's just a crappy thing to do. Do I think people are jerks for feeding birds and letting their cat hunt their yard? Of course I do. That's some sick thing to do. Do I think it will reduce the overall population of Brown Thrashers? Probably not, but that's not the point. It's being a jerk and not respecting wildlife or your fellow birder.

  25. This is an example of using extreme examples as definitive science for an issue. You condemns the motives of photographers, however praises your own as somehow more worthy.

    You should stop driving a car, as they pose a much larger risk to owls than a responsible & ethical photographer does, nevermind your hypocritical opinion of bird feeders. You're using unfounded emotion and in doing so, you're giving credibility to a hypocritical opinion.

    1. I'm not quite sure what you believe I called "definitive science" here, and don't quite see where I praise my motives. I think you're allowing your emotions to color your response.

      In my book 101 Ways to Help Birds, I go to great lengths discussing how we drive, and the safest ways to feed birds and when to close down feeding stations. I do my best to be intellectually honest, and had you posted a single specific argument in favor of baiting, I think your case against my post would be stronger.

    2. "In 1997, when a Boreal Owl turned up at the Springbrook Nature Center in Minnesota, the staff, concerned about the bird and thrilled about so many birders coming to see it, started providing daily handouts. When spring arrived, the owl didn't migrate north. I'd defended the feeding that winter, but when I learned how the practice had altered the bird's natural behaviors, I reconsidered."

      That absurd paragraph is presented as science. When in fact, feeding an animal 24 hours a day for months is obviously going to reach this outcome.

      95% of every beautiful photograph that anti-baiting people fawn over, is baited. The nature shows you enjoy, the animals are most likely baited. Wildlife photography that isn't baited is generally mediocre and never receives a second glance.

      As long as you can plug a book though, I guess your opinion is sound.

    3. That paragraph was presented as an anecdote. The one that persuaded me to change my stand on feeding. The owl was not fed "24 hours a day." And the photos posted on this very blogpost of the Northern Hawk Owl and Boreal Owl are both of non-baited birds.

      I will stop approving your comments if the rude tenor continues. Healthy debaters should not resort to meanspiritedness.

  26. Not trying to be "meanspirited", but I do have an issue with your blog. First, I do not have an opinion for or against baiting of owls with live animals. I think using fake animals is abhorrent for all the reasons you mention. But as far as live animals your own comments seem to argue for further research and education for better practices rather than a complete ban. You say baiting an owl is not at all like backyard bird feeding. Of course it is. It is exactly the same except it is in its infancy as opposed to backyard feeding. You say that backyard feeding improves the survival of birds being fed. Why is that? One would think that with window crashes, local cats and the fact that accipiters have figured out that backyard feeders are an excellent source of food would mean an increase in mortality. Yet survival goes up. You point out that the owls in question are nutritionally stressed. Whose to say that the animals that are sacrificed as bait don't help relieve that nutritional deficit? Like it does for the chickadee? Later you talk about suppressed immune systems and Salmonella. But why are their immune systems depressed? Lack of nutrition. You say that a house mouse is unnatural. I sincerely doubt that a house mouse has less nutritional value than a bog lemming. I think your criticism of National Geographic and Nature Conservancy is unfair. Yes they baited the owl with something unnatural, but really who notices that. Does that fact really diminish the beauty of the owl. Who is really looking at the mouse? And bring that beauty to people attention has value as people will want to preserve such beauty and its habitat. These owls and the people who come to see them have done a lot for the Duluth area and photos have contributed to bringing people to the area. I think your blog argues for two thing. First research into the subject. Conjecture will not help. Second and most importantly, a set of guidelines so that if one is baiting owls for pictures they do it properly. By that I mean getting good live animals to bait with. Second, make sure that the baiting is done well away from busy roads. Third, hide when releasing the mouse so the owl doesn't associate the person releasing the owl with food. And finally, try to avoid baiting the same owl over and over. I know these are just suggestions, but reading your blog they are the conclusions I came up with as being the best response to the problems you site. I think your blog does bring up some very interesting points that warrant discussion, but your conclusions do not seem to be well backed by your suppositions.

    1. We are in agreement about several issues. First, I do very much support actual research to find out whether feeding owls mice reduces or enhances or makes no difference to their longterm survival compared to not feeding them. We have the technology to do this, and as I've suggested in a previous comment, crowdsourcing might provide the funds.

      Yes, feeding owls IS in some ways like traditional bird feeding was in its infancy. But I like to think that we've learned a little since Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau's day. One thing we learned in 1998 is that a Boreal Owl fed for an entire winter was reluctant to migrate north--that bird ended in permanent captivity. We learned this winter that one transmitter-bearing Snowy Owl being fed is not moving about as all the other snowy owls are in Project SNOWstorm. These are just two data points, and the Snowy Owl from this year may still migrate normally come spring. We clearly need more than just two data points.

      We have decades of information about the long term survival and problems of banded songbirds and hummingbirds at bird feeders. These studies have led to big changes in "best practices" for feeding them, and as more scientific information comes to light, we learn that some things still need serious improvements. One study on flycatchers indicated that nests near feeding stations have significantly higher predation rates than nests away from feeding stations. It will help to learn whether this predation is due to the concentrations of feeder birds attracting raptors, or to fallen seed attracting mammalian predators, but either way, the knowledge we gain will be important and significant, and I will do my best to inform the public--this should certainly change recommendations regarding summer feeding.


    2. We have no way of knowing what "best practices" for feeding mice to owls might be, and because we don't see owls in anywhere near the numbers that we see backyard feeder birds, conducting studies is trickier and more expensive. Where you and I differ most seems to be in whether, until we have that information, we prefer to err on the side of feeding or not feeding.

      I am very frustrated by the number of people who do not care about the specific differences among rodents. House mice almost certainly have the same level of nutrition as any other mice of the same size. But that is not the issue from the standpoint of environmental education. World class magazines, especially from The Nature Conservancy, should hold photographers to a minimum standard when showing two species in one photo, requiring that both species be actually wild, or at minimum, animals native to that habitat. Great Gray Owls eat meadow voles. It would be exceptional for one to eat a house mouse, and a house mouse would not simply materialize on the surface of the snow in the middle of a bog in northern Minnesota. Claiming that this could take place or suggesting that people are too ignorant to notice anyway so what's the harm in a little miseducation violates every principle of intellectual honesty.

      Right now, most of the baiting/feeding I'm seeing and hearing about is not following the rules you pieced together. Enforcement of anything is far easier when rules are explicit. If a great many photographers baiting owls are doing it at roadsides, with no efforts whatsoever to hide from the birds, and day after day are gravitating to the birds publicized on listservs, facebook, eBird, etc., photographers who actually are following your principles would seem to be wasting their energy griping at people like me rather than encouraging one another to follow those rules. If the excesses continue, rules are going to be set that even the most ethical owl-feeding photographers don't like. Really, people who believe there should be at least some rules regarding owl-feeding should be promoting those rather than making this a simple black-and-white us-against-them issue.

      I've been inundated with unconscionably rude emails this week. I've also heard from a handful of photographers who seem to be at least trying to engage in a dialog. Unfortunately, most of the email I've received from people in favor of baiting/feeding owls has been of the type that makes me want to dig my heels in and just tell them to go to hell.

      I suspect that if honest discord were the order of the day, the final answer to the question of owl-feeding would be somewhere in the gray area between my stand of "no baiting till it's been proven safe" and "what's wrong with baiting?" It might even be close to what you propose in your comment. I'd feel bad about some other areas that go beyond science into my valuing the intrinsic wildness of birds of prey, and my concerns about invasive exotic species scattered about the Minnesota wilds, but no one is going to get 100 percent of what they want here, and I'd rather solutions be based on scientific evidence than emotion, including my vague sense of right and wrong as well as the vague sense of right and wrong by people promoting owl feeding.

      In the final analysis, the question really comes down to what we do until we have sound scientific studies establishing how harmful or harmless owl feeding is. I prefer to err on the side of caution; many people prefer to err on the side of going ahead until scientific evidence proves it's harmful. On that we'll have to agree to disagree.

    3. Thank you for your heartfelt response. Honestly, I think you make better points in your response than your blog only in the sense that you don't seem so rigid. I am a birder first. I do take pictures, but photos are not my prime goal. I just realize how many time I have enjoyed taking photos at various feeders throughout the world. And not just Chickadees. Hummingbird feeders also come to mind. What I find disturbing is when people take an issue and take a definitive stand when the scientific evidence is lacking. I applaud you for bringing the issue to light. It clearly needs attention. But when one side digs in their heels on weak data the other side will do just the same and now we have closed the dialog and gotten nowhere. Just look at Congress. The rules I suggested were just that suggestions. I am too far away from the issue to be writing definitive guidelines, I guess I am suggesting that you could make guidelines so as to gain a common ground to work from. If you dig in and say no then your opponents will just go ahead and do it the Wrong way and say screw you. This is the worst outcome. I think most of the people you talk about do care about the animals in question. If there was a safer way to do what they are doing I think they would choose to follow that way. There at least is progress. I agree with your final analysis, but until we get an answer, can't we find a middle ground as you suggest. Would you be okay with the statement that you oppose baiting until it is proven to be safe, but if you must bait then please follow guidelines that follow. (insert your guidelines. You have the podium and as much expertise as any). Again I will at some point come (again) to the Duluth area to see Owls. I hadn't even thought about baiting them in. I'm pretty sure I won't do it, but honestly hadn't thought about until I read this blog. I just have seen too much of the congressional way (dig in on both sides until nothing gets done). I do want to thank you for bringing the issue up. I agree that it should be looked at and you have done a great job of starting the debate.

    4. A lot of people believe that when politicians change their viewpoint, they're selling out, and in many cases they are. But airing both sides of any issue involves two things: being clear where you stand as your starting point, and being open to ideas on the other side, which can sometimes lead you to move closer together. That is the best of compromise.

      I'm not going to change my original blog post, because that is the starting point of this debate. But people like you have made some excellent points, and as I said, no one ever gets 100% of what they want in any democratic system. Working together we could find solutions that I don't see possible when either side digs in their heels.

      I truly hope that people opposing owl baiting are not being as disgustingly rude as some of the people defending it, or our society is in more trouble than I fear.

  27. The second last Owl I photographed was killed by a motor vehicle. And I don't bait owls, nor does anyone where I live. This article focussed on a small problem, maybe a hundred to two photographers baiting as compared to millions driving cars through owl habitat. SO, Owls have a problem with cars, and habitat loss and possibly baiting, although baiting needs to be proved. We have wild squirrels who live inout city parks here in Toronto that everyone feeds. And sometimes people take pictures of them. They have become habituated to humans, but there are still lot's of squirrels doing what squirrels do. So becoming habituated to humans is not in itself a bad thing... if they share a habitat with humans. I know the researchers would be happy if owls just avoided human and freaked out every time they saw one, but I'm not sure how that would be healthy at all for them living on the borders of inhabited areas.

    This is targeting the few... and ignoring the sins of the many, including one self.
    Taken in the great scheme of protection for owls baiting is a very small component. But one with an identifiable target, us nasty photographers. Meanwhile behind my house, people throw their garbage out in the woods and then in bear season go shoot the bears who come to eat it from a tree stand. We can't ban baiting of any kind, because those who make their livings from the bear hunt will lose their incomes. But we can ban owl baiting because it's just photographers.

    If you want to save wildlife, the biggest thing to do is reduce speed limits. Yours mine, everyones. Not just a few photographers. And the only way to get that done is to take a lot of heat from a lot of people who make their living driving, or who drive long distances to get to work each day. And by stopping your neighbours from destroying habitat in wilderness territories for homes and resorts, but then you'd be taking on some really well heeled developers with a lot of money who would publicly challenge your credibility, possibly even your sanity. Better to take on a few insignificant poor photographers. To me, it's not just bad science, it's absolutely mainstream cowardice.

    It's what happens when people who are constantly fighting for funding have to take on ridiculous and to my mind demeaning public action to get donations and funding. As a person once involved in the civil rights movement, a movement where you put yourself on the line to stand behind what you believed in, I find these meaningless squabbles to be just sad. I don't know what's sadder, environmentalists jumping the gun establishing harm where none exists, or governments passing meaningless regulations, that will do nothing for the owls but not offend anybody, in the interest of pretending they are doing something.

    It's all a farce, and it's sad to see someone who calls themselves a scientist participating in it. It gives environmental science a really bad name. Especially among those who are targeted. On would argue that photographers are probably on the edge of promoting environmental protections all over the worlds, and publicizing the need for them. I'm sure the developers are just up there smiling away. Let those who promote wilderness and environmental protection fight it out amongst themselves. Meanwhile, we'll just keep killing animals on the highways and building in their habitats while they duke it out over owl bating.

    The phrase "unwitting dupes" comes to mind.

    1. I was involved in the civil rights movement myself, and was part of the very first Earth Day in 1970. Again, I'm going to refer to my book 101 Ways to Help Birds, because it takes on our driving habits, strongly recommending that we all drive more slowly (which saves gas, impacting all kinds of issues affecting birds) AND reduces collisions with wildlife. I can guarantee you that I'm the slowest driver you are going to meet, because I am very mindful of my own rule, to "drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient."

      My book devotes a lot of attention to habitat loss, and how we should be working to preserve natural habitat. My husband and I would have dearly loved to live in the north woods when we moved here in 1981, but we didn't want to be hypocritical--to preserve natural habitat, we live in town. I purchase a Duck Stamp every year, and recommend that everyone do that to add habitat to the National Wildlife Refuge system. I've engaged in a great many controversies to protect habitat. This is a critical issue--I agree that it is more critical than feeding owls.

      My book takes on other environmental issues, as well, like conserving energy and other natural resources, and I've spent my adult life doing my best to live up to the standards I promote. I completely agree that many of these issues are of higher priority than feeding owls.

      But the reason the owl feeding issue has exploded is because more and more people are tossing mice to owls, more and more persistently and in egregious ways, and defenders of the practice, rather than trying to develop ethical guidelines and curb the greatest excesses, are attacking people like me.

      Murder and rape are far greater crime than speeding. Does that mean police should stop enforcing speed limits? I'm afraid unwitting dupes can be found on both sides of any issue.

  28. There is inherent harm in all kinds of bird feeding. Whether it's a hummingbird flying into a window near a hummer feeder, a House Finch contracting conjunctivitis at a thistle sock, or a cardinal being captured by a Cooper's Hawk that was attracted the unnaturally high concentration of seed-eating birds around a backyard hopper feeder, our feeding wildlife may always have deleterious effects. In this, owls are not a special case. "Baiting" means to provide food with the goal of capturing an animal. Birders and/or photographers who feed owls are no more "baiting" than are the millions of backyard bird enthusiasts who have seed feeders. Why unnecessarily use a loaded and negatively-connoted term? Now I must go put out more seed for the American Tree Sparrows I'm baiting in my backyard.

    1. There are definitely many harms inherent to bird feeding. There are also inherent benefits to the birds from bird feeding. Studies of Wisconsin feeder birds and, I think, in Ithaca, NY, have established that chickadee mortality in severe winters is reduced with bird feeding.

      A great many things we do are associated with harms. Simply driving to the bog to look at birds involves harming birds, from the use of natural resources in our cars and possible collisions to stepping out of the car or even just opening the window, making it possible a bird will flush right to a hawk. We can't enjoy birds in any way, shape, or form without potentially harming them.

      Knowing this requires us to be mindful, and to realistically weigh and try to minimize risks. That goes far, far beyond how we feed birds to how much we drive/fly and in other ways squander natural resources, how we minimize bird collisions at our windows (the number one victim of window strikes in most studies is the Ovenbird--hardly a feeder bird), and all kinds of other things we do. I spent four years of my life earning a pittance to write my book 101 Ways to Help Birds quite specifically to help people assess how our day-to-day activities affect birds and how we can minimize the harms and maximize the benefits to birds.

    2. I hate to beat a dead horse, especially since you and I have spoken about this personally. But what is the difference between baiting and feeding? The word "owl" and "raptor" appear nowhere in any widely-accepted definition. Yet birders are being fed this line of intellectual dishonesty. Why?

    3. Call me crazy, but I think science should be the basis for our laws regarding wildlife and ecosystems. Not anecdotes and well-intentioned feelings. Speaking of science, here's a compendium of studies on the impact of feeding wildlife. Now, most of it is on feeding large mammals (especially herbivores), so probably best not applied to birds, but there are some bird studies listed.

      Here are the specific bird examples listed in the article. A mixed bag, really. Interestingly, the examples cast eagle-feeding in a positive light (for the same reason you listed for chickadees, above) and passerine-feeding in a negative one.

      Artificial feeding may help to maintain and support some endangered species including trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) (Gale, 1989; Gomez and Scheuring, 1996), and local “at-risk” populations including bald eagles (Hario, 1981; Helander, 1981; Helander, 1985; McCollough et al., 1994).

      Artificial feeding increased the carrying capacity of habitat for bald eagles during times of decreasing prey population and was effective at drawing eagles away from contaminated food sources (McCollough et al., 1994).

      Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in house finches – Since 1994, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis has been found in a variety of bird-feeder type birds, especially house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus). In the past 8 years, the disease has spread westward from the eastern United States (Fischer et al., 1997; Hartup, 1998). Although it is not fully understood how the disease is transmitted among house finches, artificial feeding is suspected to facilitate transmission (Fischer et al., 1997; Hartup et al., 1998). The use of tube feeders that offer few perches increases contact among birds. Further, seed contaminated by the infectious organism Mycoplasma gallisepticum is protected from moisture within the tube feeders.

      Salmonellosis in passerine birds – Outbreaks of salmonellosis in Michigan occur mostly in passerine birds concentrated around feeders during winter. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 2001; see,1607,7-153- 10370_12150_12220-27268--CI,00.html). The disease is transmitted directly through ingestion of feed contaminated with feces containing the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium.

      Nutritional deficiencies in fed birds – Many people feed wild birds, including waterfowl, to supplement their diet. However, birds maintained on artificial feed [e.g., bread] are frequently submitted to wildlife rehabilitation centers as a result of severe nutritional deficiencies and metabolic bone disease (Ohio Wildlife Center, 2000; see ://

      Although the recovery of the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is a great success story for wildlife conservation, the increased number of birds wintering in southern British Columbia is putting pressure on the agricultural lands they have come to depend on. Since each swan can eat up to 1.2 kilos of grass per day, their foraging habits might translate into substantial forage losses to the farmer (Environment Canada, 2002; see

    4. I am posting lengthy responses to that poor dead horse.

    5. How come honest people comment on the subject discussed and others change the subject or play devils' advocate with irrelevant comparisons. If you are not willing to give your opinion on the subject, why give it at all. It is useless and deflects from the argument. People who do not understand why baiting for photography is unethical or possibly detrimental are simply uneducated on the subject.

  29. Baiting and feeding are synonymous, but each has nuances and connotations, too. When we are trying to draw a fish to a fish hook, we don't "feed" it, we bait it--that is, we are setting out food with the intention of luring the fish in for our use. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of bait is "to put a piece of food on (a hook) or in (a trap) in order to attract and catch fish or animals." By that definition, putting a fake mouse on a line to lure in owls is definitely baiting it, and setting a mouse in a cage out to lure in an owl or other bird of prey (I've seen banders do this) would be baiting, but setting the mouse on the snow would not be. But because the original practice involved that literal baiting, and tossing the mice out onto the snow was an extension of that practice which was found to be a more successful approach to the very same end, the word baiting continued to be used for that purpose. EVERY owl bander I've ever spent time with has called mice "bait" and the practice "baiting. I've never ever heard a bander refer to a mouse as "bird food" nor to luring a bird to a net using a mouse to be "feeding."

    Bird feeding had an entirely different origin than owl baiting. A few people in the 19th century started tossing out food for birds during bad weather, not for their own entertainment but because they wanted to help the birds. The "Feed the Birds" song in Mary Poppins is not about feeding birds to gratify birders who get splendid views of pigeons, but to help the birds--any gratification comes from the specific feeling of doing something good for the birds. "Come feed the little birds. Show them you care," is the sensibility of that song. Indeed, for better and for worse, the popularity of bird feeding was far greater in urban areas, where people have long thrown bread to pigeons and ducks, than in suburban areas. I need to research more about the origins of feeding in more wild habitats, but suspect based on correspondence I've had with non-birders who write with questions that most non-birders who feed birds in the north woods do it specifically to help the birds. Other than birders, most of these people don't feed birds at all in summer, or limit it to hummingbirds. I think I probably hear from a much higher percentage of non-birders who feed birds than most birders do, and although it's a judgment based on a long history of these communications, not a scientific study, I think most non-birders feed birds much more to help the birds than for their own gratification.

    I would submit that it's intellectually dishonest to dismiss the history of word usage when insisting on consistency of usage.

    1. Feeding bread to pigeons and ducks is NOT within what anyone recommends as "best practices" for bird feeding, just as cutting branches to expose nests for photographs isn't a best practice. In both cases, the harms they can do are why they are often regulated. In my city, for example, there is a $50 fine for feeding pigeons, even in backyard feeders.

    2. "EVERY owl bander I've ever spent time with has called mice "bait" and the practice "baiting. I've never ever heard a bander refer to a mouse as "bird food" nor to luring a bird to a net using a mouse to be "feeding."

      They are capturing the owls to band. Them they are baiting, per your own definition. I don't see how that's at all relevant.

    3. Bird banders and falconers, both intent on capturing owls and hawks, developed the techniques of baiting--from mice on a fishing line to mice in a cage to mice tossed on the snow. Photographers are using the exact same technique, which they LEARNED originally from bird banders and falconers. It's intellectually dishonest to change the word for it simply because now the intent is to photograph the birds rather than to trap them either temporarily for banding or permanently for falconry.

  30. “Call me crazy, but I think science should be the basis for our laws regarding wildlife and ecosystems.”

    Okay. I’ll call you crazy. It’s intellectually dishonest to limit the scientific caveat to laws regarding wildlife and ecosystems, unless you demand a scientific basis for all laws. There was no consensus of scientific opinion regarding, for example whether homosexuality was a choice or innate. Even today there is no scientific consensus about how genetics plays into it. But I would submit that laws prohibiting discrimination should have been passed long, long ago regardless of any scientific underpinnings. I would submit that laws against murder, theft, rape, assault, and other crimes against individual humans exist not because of science, but because of how we value individual human life. And laws against cruelty to animals exist because of how we value individual animal life. Many brutal murderers happen to have once been children who tortured animals, according to several scientific studies, but that predisposition to go on to bigger brutality is not why those laws to prevent animal torture were written in the first place—it was because the great consensus among society was that torture is a Bad Thing.

    In other words, many laws are written for what you dismiss as emotional reasons without any scientific basis. Societies grow and change, and laws evolve with changing sensibilities. The first laws protecting wildlife were not based on scientific studies—they were based on anecdotes and experiences of knowledgeable people.

    Even when science comes directly into play, lawmakers are overwhelmed by the studies—they are not scientists themselves, and it’s easy to manipulate a lot of studies to draw different conclusions—that is why Congress has thus far not done a damned thing about reducing CO2 emissions even as the vast majority of climate scientists, looking at a vast body of scientific studies, have concluded that climate change is happening, and is due in large part to human activity.


    1. I'm trying not to be personally and deeply offended that you've just (unwittingly?) equated to my civil rights as a human being to whether or not someone feeds a mouse to an owl. Animals are not people. Most people eat animals. Science should *absolutely* be the overriding--if not the only--basis for laws regarding wildlife and ecosystems.

      But if you want to go down that road, people's feelings (i.e., values) are also used to justify denying to rights to women in some countries. How is that *at all* relevant to this discussion?

    2. Science as a methodology can illuminate empirical reasons for protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as provide us with the potential consequences if we choose not to. It's nevertheless our moral responsibility to act. Throughout history, it's our moral reaction that has served as a catalyst for changing environmental protection laws for the betterment of biodiversity and ourselves.

    3. There is a character limit in Blogger that prevented me from putting my entire response in one box--it ran over into the next two boxes, too.

      I meant absolutely nothing by opening with discrimination laws--it popped into my head because several people have segued from birder/photographer ethics with regard to owls to the ethics involved in birding in Uganda right now--that's how the connection popped into my head. I'd actually extended this into more about the Equal Rights Amendment, something I'd worked hard collecting signatures to get on the ballot back in the 70s, putting my heart and soul into trying to get equal rights for half of all adult Americans--something that still isn't the law of the land. And again, nothing about legal discrimination of any kind is based on science or lack of it--it's a value. My lengthy response to yours started with laws governing human beings, and, if you finished reading, extended to how laws regarding the environment and wildlife are not different--I reiterate my first sentence--it's intellectually dishonest to draw such a distinction. ALL laws are based on values as well as on, or despite, scientific data.

  31. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring included both anecdotes and scientific studies to educate people about the issues surrounding pesticides and the toll they were taking on birds. We knew that DDT was somehow connected to the disappearance of breeding Peregrine Falcons over the entire eastern US, and that it was related to the precipitous declines of Bald Eagles and Osprey, and spraying on the campus of MSU was related to huge numbers of dead robins littering the campus—some huge mortality events were documented by George Wallace. But the mechanisms for how DDT was harming them was not known even as Congress started paying attention to constituents, alarmed after reading the book. The law banning it was made before all the science was in. It was Joe Hickey at U of Wisconsin who found the connection between DDT and thinning eggshells of birds of prey—but the actual mechanism was still not understood. The law was finally passed due not only to the effects DDT was presumably having on birds but also because DDT was being detected in mother’s milk.

    But there were values to using DDT as well as compelling reasons to limit its use or ban it—science was showing, on the other side, how effective it was at killing pest insects. And science was also showing how it lost its effectiveness as mosquitoes and other pests developed resistance. Lawmakers NEVER base laws entirely on science, and even when a law is mostly based on science, it’s far more nuanced than most people realize, and more based on values. People who were fighting for the continued use of DDT were dismissing the value of eagles and peregrines, saying it was reasonable to lose them in exchange for the values of eradicating mosquitoes. There were scientists on both sides of the issue, and in the final analysis, the laws were based on values—values informed by science, to be sure, but weighing the value of cool birds and uncontaminated mother’s milk vs. profits and fighting disease-carrying mosquitoes and agricultural pests.

    Read this New Yorker article to see how even detailed scientific studies are used and twisted by either side to influence lawmakers, because in the final analysis, even when science informs, other values ALWAYS come to play.


    1. Link to that New Yorker article about atrazine:

  32. This is not at all to say that science doesn’t have a powerful place in debates, discussions, and regulations regarding owl feeding or baiting. As you showed yourself with the studies regarding bird feeding, the more studies you provide, the less black-and-white any issue becomes. But I noticed that you didn’t include the hundreds, or even thousands, or studies that inform scientists about birds based on bird feeding. Christmas Bird Count data since the first count in 1901 has included counts at feeders. Much of what we know about winter bird distribution and population levels comes from CBC data. Much of what we know about hummingbird distribution and population levels comes from feeder data. If science is to be revered as the most important underpinning to laws regarding birds, we would be hamstringing our primary source of data if we were to eliminate bird feeding. I don’t know what “studies” have proven the value of the Ventana Wildlife Society providing uncontaminated carcasses for California Condors where they are picking up lead-laced leavings from hunters, but would you discount the data about that because at this point it’s anecdotal?

    Of the six studies you specifically cited regarding bird feeding, the one regarding Trumpeter Swans (Environment Canada 2002) was not about artificial feeding—it was about the impact of the swan recovery program on agricultural lands. That is entirely irrelevant to this discussion, though it would be unfair for me to accuse you of intellectual dishonesty for including it.

    The thing about science is, our understanding evolves as we get a little information (often originating from anecdotes and the experiences of informed people) and ask new questions and formulate new ways of collecting data.

    But as you note, bird feeding is indeed a mixed bag. That is why the Cornell Lab of Ornithology continues to research its effects, and continues to try to educate people regarding best practices. They do not condone feeding bread, nor do I, specifically because it is not nutritious for birds.

    Whether or not owl feeding increases individual owl survivability over the short and long terms, and whether as it grows in popularity it can impact owl populations, are questions that can be resolved by science. But even if we got conclusive proof establishing that feeding owls harmed individual owls (protected by the Migratory Bird Act) or impacted wider populations in a harmful way, the law wouldn’t be written entirely based on that, because a great many people would continue to argue that the pleasures birders/photographers get from such close proximity to owls, and the values of photos of owls, offset some harm. If no harms were established, there would still be people arguing about sacrificing the intrinsic wildness of birds of prey, the risks of habituating individual owls to people, the compromising of data from owls bearing transmitters, the cruelty to mice, etc. And the people writing the regulations have to weigh everything, knowing that even “science” changes as more questions are asked and more studies are done.

  33. Wow, that is quite some argument going there! I've read it with interest.

    I'm from the other side of the pond (UK) and as far as I know "baiting" owls has never been something done (or I have never come across it in 30+ years of birding but I guess I may be wrong) I do not know the value in terms of nutritional supplementation (either for or against, although I can't see how making food available for a bird that is nutritionally OK could hurt?) but I do not believe that it would be the cause of death or injury of birds by vehicles.

    You would have to prove that more birds were hit that were baited than not, and I would doubt that either possible (as you would have to test the theory by baiting some but not others on the same stretch of road, and see which is hit more, a horrific thought) or likely. My reasoning for the later is that in the UK a large number of Owls (mainly Barn owl) are killed every year by trucks that are large and do NOT have lights at the top of their cabs or trailers and are therefore hard for owls to pick out at night (glare from headlights presumably affecting the night vision at that point), these owls use roadside verges to hunt as they provide excellent sources of habitat for the creatures they eat, as well as offering areas of plant free hunting as the voles, mice etc cross from verge to verge. (Personally I'd rather that we had less trucks/roads and more owls but the rest of the would doesn't seem to agree), I know the US and UK are very different in the types of owl and amount of open spaces etc but I would think it is more likely a similar story than the fact the owls were baited as the root cause.

    I must say though the thought of actually fishing for an owl (with a fake mouse on a line) seems totally abhorrent to me, anyone doing that has no love of wildlife in my opinion.

    I guess I err on the side of if it isn't shown to harm an animal then there isn't an issue, but it would be interesting to see if there really was harm caused by this method.

    I do just wish it wasn't always photographers that get the blame for everything, most are I know (myself included) were birders first and have a damn good understanding of field craft and do NOT employ these sorts of tactics or disturb the birds.

    Incidentally are there laws in the US about photographing certain birds at certain times of the year (again here in the UK you need a license to photograph Schedule 1 birds on or near a nest)?

    1. The United States was one of the most forward acting of all nations in wildlife protection, beginning with the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. This law absolutely prohibits the pursuing, hunting, taking, capturing, killing or selling of birds listed as protected; owls are included thanks to amendments. I think a strong case can be made that pursuing birds could reasonably be defined as changing their activities to accommodate a person's desires--"pursuing" violates the law.The law protects individuals quite specifically. It's up to state and federal agencies to regulate all uses after ensuring that wildlife populations can sustain the use.

      Again, I'm still waiting to find a single conservation organization in favor of the practice. Does the RSPB have any stand on it?

    2. I'm not sure they have a stand as I don't think it is a common activity over here, however the Barn Owl Trust have some information on how to do it in this PDF: Although they say it isn't easy due to carrion feeders (crows, foxes etc.) they or the hawk and Owl Trust might have more information (not that I can find anything).

      Owl baiting over here is usually done by evil land owners or their game keepers to kill with poisoned meat! So tricky to find out.

    3. Interesting that there are people who do it for nefarious purposes. I don't know how much people here have problems with owls, though we have a long history of people persecuting hawks. Indeed, our migratory bird act set out to protect individual birds, specifically, and was written to err on the side of protecting individual birds over allowing even somewhat legitimate uses. It's been illegal here since the law's enactment for anyone to possess even a single feather from a protected bird, even if one came by the feather innocently--say, picking up a Blue Jay feather in the back yard. That's because there's no way of establishing that you didn't purchase the feather or kill the bird to get it. Bird feeding of backyard birds was an established tradition that the lawmakers made no effort to curtail, but I wonder how they'd interpret the law if someone was cited for violating the MBTA (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) with regard to owl baiting?

    4. It is completely against the law here too, just wealthy land owners don't care and have friends in high places! Protecting the grouse they shoot is way more important than the wild birds (The internet needs a sarcasm font!)

    5. Well, that's not much different from here. Indeed, agricultural interests are allowed to kill, by poisoning, millions of blackbirds each year, along with unquantifiable collateral kills, and now the killing of "nuisance" birds is left to the US Department of Agriculture, NOT the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Guess which side they come down on when someone wants to kill one or many birds causing even the most minor annoyance?

  34. It's only an argument because some people fail to see the logic in why it is certainly not a smart thing to bait owls, and try to justify their stance by making comparisons to other types of bird feeding or bahavior by birders instead of stating exactly how they feel about BAITING OWLS. I wonder what ethics people like that practices themselves in the field?

    Also, the internet is a haven for people who just like to argue and have little else to do with their time. I'll express my opinion, and if others disagree, don't expect a response from me, just re-read this one because it says it all.

  35. Here's a great MOU Listserv post from just 2 1/2 years ago.

    Baiting Owls
    From: Michael Hendrickson <[log in to unmask]>
    Reply-To: Michael Hendrickson <[log in to unmask]>
    Date: Fri, 4 Nov 2011 10:28:47 -0700
    Content-Type: text/plain

    The risk of baiting owls are always weighed
    against the rewards. There are so many negatives to owl baiting which include endangering the birds, unfit or diseased food and that it seems obvious to me that it's not worth the risk.

    The use of live mice
    increases the chances for this illusion and it fools everyone who views the photo. Most
    importantly though, it fools the owl. Ethics are traded for aesthetics.

    Sure, many will find justification in what they do and many others will
    compliment them for their final result. But, I need to know one thing.
    Why do we want to tame a wild animal such as a Northern Hawk Owl or a Great Great Gray Owl? For any reason other than to take
    away something it has and we want?

    There is nothing natural about these methods–only deception. Evolution and the natural process are abated and replaced with urgency.

    From what I experience when I go out birding with my camera one needs a lot of patience, persistence and a very good knowledge of the bird in question behavior and habits. Tossing mice to owls is cutting corners rather being patient and learning its habits. Its urgency and putting your needs over the owl needs to fool him so you can get that kill fly shot or close up perched shot.

    I learned this by talking and chatting with Paul Bannick who is the author of "The owl and the Woodpecker" who is also the feature speaker for Sax-Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival Feb 17-19 2012. Paul spends long hours photographing owls and he never uses bait to get the photo he wants. Paul tells me he first observes the owl subject from the field and learn its habits and what tree they favor and ect.. the next day he goes out early before sunrise and waits for the owls to appear. Its all natural and with no risks. The awards for him are plenty!

    Throwing mice to owls is cheating to achieve photos is simply cheating. I hope the MOU editors refrain from publishing any owl photo that has been labeled as baited and also from photographers who continue to side with baiting as a way to achieve photos.


    Mike Hendrickson
    Duluth, Minnesota