Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, February 3, 2020

Tragic News

Great Gray Owl

Last Wednesday I talked about a Great Gray Owl right in Duluth. The bird stuck around for four or five days, giving hundreds of people an amazing experience and stunning photos as well. Owls are such hardy, resilient creatures that we don’t usually worry about the ones we encounter, but this particular one was not just in town, but staying in a very narrow strip between Interstate 35 and Water Street. I’ve seen foxes right in that spot, but I can’t imagine there are many voles there—the primary staple of a Great Gray Owl’s diet. The bird made plenty of passes between a small stand of spruce trees and a highway sign, giving me and others wonderful flight shots, but I never found anyone who witnessed it successfully catching anything. 

I went to see it just once, watching it for a half hour or so. One of my friends alerted me, but word had gotten out via Twitter and several Facebook groups, so a huge host of people already knew it was there—the Duluth News-Tribune even put a photo of it on the front page. When I arrived in early afternoon on Tuesday, two photographers had been there for quite a long time already—one was about to leave and the other left after we’d talked a bit. Before I left, another birder or photographer was arriving.

It was already being checked out by so many people that I figured, or at least hoped, that my mentioning it on the air wouldn’t add to the pressure on it.  And the human pressure seemed benign. I walked along Water Street a ways looking for evidence that people had left the roadside to get closer looks, but didn’t see any footprints going into the snow more than just two or three feet from the roadside—the bird was staying so close to the road that no one needed to get closer even for stupendous photos. The owl was flying strongly, and based on its appearance to my eyes there in the field watching it and then at home via my photos, it seemed healthy. I hoped against hope that people would stay on the roadside and not behave unethically in the presence of this magnificent creature.

It was dicey, of course, and now lots of people are telling me how predictable it was that the bird would end up dead, even though most of those same people went to look at and photograph it.

We’ve had other charismatic owls show up in town and stay quite viewable for a week or longer who then just quietly moved on. Some out-of-town birders who couldn’t get here for a few days wanted everyone to leave this one alone simply so they could get their chance to see it, but most of the people who thought it would be wisest to leave the owl to its own devices weren’t acting out of selfishness. The strip of land between the freeway and Water Street is narrow, so catching it safely to assess its condition and either relocate it or bring it to the Raptor Center had serious risks even for experienced banders.

Most people who are drawn to wild birds are ethical, good people. But I’ve come to accept that people do bad things—sometimes out of egregious selfishness, and sometimes out of ignorance. I found out yesterday that the owl had died en route to the Raptor Center, and also learned that a person or people had apparently fed it pet store mice. Some unethical photographers do this to get magnificent flight shots. Despite how much information is out there explaining why this is bad, they manage to get big sales for their photos, so some keep doing it. That unethical behavior is egregiously selfish. And ignorance abounds in a nation where even the head of state congratulates the “great state of Kansas” when the Kansas City Chiefs, based of course in Kansas City, Missouri, win the Super Bowl.

Way more Americans learn about major cities of the United States than about owl digestion. That ignorance distresses me—indeed, I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to correct my own ignorance about the natural world and to educate others about what I’ve learned. Yet even right here in Duluth most people simply do not know why and how owls spit out pellets, how their digestion is affected by that pellet system, and why swallowing a mouse when they’re already in a compromised state can kill them. 

When I first started rehabbing, I learned from a few rehabilitators that the very first thing one must do when confronted with a starving owl is NOT to feed it, but to give it fluids. My vet provided me with lactated Ringer’s solution, and when I couldn’t get to him, I had unflavored Pedialyte on hand to get injured or starving owls well hydrated before feeding them. And I was taught how to administer fluids without the bird aspirating them.

Why are fluids so essential? As any owl digests the spoils from a night of hunting, its stomach secretions dissolve its prey’s tissues which, as they liquify, are squeezed down from the muscular stomach, or gizzard, into the intestines. Owl stomach secretions are far less acidic than those of hawks. Bones, teeth, fur, and feathers don’t break down at all in an owl’s stomach—they stay in the gizzard, being squeezed over and over. After the gizzard has squeezed all the digestible soft matter, and also all the stomach fluids, into the intestines, everything left in the gizzard works its way backward, through the now empty glandular part of the stomach, up the esophagus, and out the mouth, in a densely packed, fairly dry pellet. 

Any time an owl sees or hears prey, its body has to start siphoning fluids back into the stomach. But if it has reached a dangerous state of starvation, without ingesting either foods or fluids into its system for a critical time, it won’t have enough fluids available. If it swallows prey at this point, it will go into shock. Bird banders who understand this may use a mouse to lure an owl into a trap, but as they handle the bird, they will, or should, recognize the signs that it urgently needs fluids. Photographers and owl-watchers in general have no way of recognizing that an owl’s body is compromised. Feeding one a mouse can be the final straw for a starving owl.

If an owl does digest a pet shop mouse, it becomes vulnerable to another danger—salmonella. Because its stomach secretions are less acidic than those of hawks, it simply can’t break down dangerous pathogens as well as hawks do. Children in Minnesota have succumbed to salmonella simply by kissing their pet mice; swallowing a whole mouse is clearly even more dangerous. By the time the Duluth Great Gray Owl keeled over and people tried to rescue it, it also had an injured eye—an injury that happens almost strictly due to a collision. The owl may have collided with a car on its own, or it may have been lured in with a mouse or a person squeaking. Either way involved humans. 

We are, most of us, by nature, gawkers. Some people gawk at football games, or the stars and northern lights, or reality TV, or the birds at our feeders, or pages of a book, but gawking—studying the world around us—is a deeply-embedded human characteristic. Gawking isn’t bad until it endangers others, like slowing down to gawk as we pass a highway accident.

It’s not the gawking at an owl that endangers it, as long as we limit ourselves to gawking from a safe distance. It’s when we intervene, changing the behavior of the owl by approaching too closely, or making sounds or playing recordings, or, worst of all, putting out a mouse so we can get a better look or photo angle or just to get the owl to look directly at the camera, that gawking becomes unethical. It doesn’t matter one bit whether our motives are arrogant selfishness or innocent ignorance when the owl ends up dead. 

The Duluth owl died on its way to the Raptor Center. And just in case the people who caused its death were alerted to its presence by my radio program, I’m never going to mention where any owl is ever again, until it's safely moved on.