Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself in the midst of a group of owl baiters.
Owl baiting is the practice of feeding mice (usually store-bought) to wild owls to get better photographs of owls “in action”. In some cases decoys are also used, like a recent case in Quebec where baiters used a mouse in a glass jar. This practice is not illegal (at least in Ontario where I live), but is considered questionable by many people.
Over the last few weeks Great Gray Owl pictures have been cropping up all over social media. These owls normally reside further north, but every 4-5 years they wander south in search of food. During these “irruption” years, many photographers and birders want to find, observe and photograph this rare species.
I was no different. I had never seen a Great Gray Owl and I was keen to learn where I would have the chance to observe one. Based on a tip I received from another photographer, I set off yesterday in search of my lifer. I was told this was a “secret” spot where I could quietly observe this species.
When my boyfriend and I arrived in the area, we noticed a lot of cars parked on the side of the road. Hmm… are all these people here to see the owl? After a short walk, we saw a group of about 20 photographers with tripods and long lenses. I looked to my right and there it was, the majestic beauty: a Great Gray Owl! The photographers were all standing far away from the owl and I naively thought it was great that they were keeping their distance.
We continued observing this wonderful owl when suddenly it took off and landed mere feet from the group of photographers. My heart was pounding, what is happening here? Why is it so close to them? I noticed that two photographers nearest to the owl had short lenses and I realized they must have expected the owl would come close to them. Then it clicked.
These people are baiting the owl!
What do you do when you’ve driven a long way to observe a lifer in its natural setting and you discover it’s being baited?
My initial instinct was that we should leave immediately. I felt panicked and highly uncomfortable with the situation.
We decided to stay for little while longer.
During the next 30 minutes, we observed 2 more mice being released from a cooler. The moment the mouse hit the ground, the Great Gray Owl swooped in, ate it whole, and then flew back to its perch a fair distance away on a tree. The third time it was fed, rather than fly back to the tree, the owl landed on a camera lens mounted on a tripod right above the cooler of mice.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Suddenly it swooped down to the ground and literally face-planted into the snow. I don’t know if it thought there was a mouse there because it could smell the mice in the cooler, but this behavior seemed odd. It then flew up and landed on a different camera lens, less than 3 feet away from a few photographers.
It already seemed habituated to being around humans.
At this point I decided I had experienced enough of the baiting scene. I now understood what it was all about and I had to get out of there.
The entire car journey home, my boyfriend and I couldn’t stop discussing what we had seen. The conversation continued when we got home and is still going on today! Should we have said something? Should we have left immediately? How long will they stand there feeding this owl? Even if they weren’t feeding the owl, could it hunt naturally with that many people standing in the field? Will the owl overeat if they feed it too often? By being there, had we been complicit in or even encouraged the owl baiting?
The questions are endless and the answers aren’t always easy to come by.
And for me, one of the hardest questions is:
What do I do with my photographs? Are they tainted?
I think the ones where the owl is swooping in to pounce on a store-bought mouse certainly are! Especially if I were to post them without revealing their true nature.
Coming away from that experience, I felt like I had been at the zoo watching a trained performer. It’s hard to dissociate the experience of seeing a wonderful lifer owl, from the circus I witnessed. The biggest disappointment was not having the option to view the owl naturally. If an owl is being baited, you can either leave and miss seeing the owl altogether or stay and be subjected to the “performance”.
I don’t regret going to see this owl because now I fully understand what owl baiting is all about. Rather than sweep this experience under the rug and post my pictures without an explanation of how I got such “amazing” close-up shots, I’ve decided to speak out about it. You can decide for yourself whether you think owl baiting is okay or not and how you would have handled the situation I faced.
It would be awesome to start a hashtag like #ethicalowlphoto for photographs of owls that are taken naturally and without harassment. After this experience I’ve realized just how many shots on social media are of baited owls. Unfortunately by “liking” these shots we are unwittingly promoting photography techniques like baiting. The same way I would always label my photographs of birds in captivity, I wish people would identify their shots of baited wildlife.
Update: Due to the popularity of this idea, I’ve set up @ethicalowlphotos on Instagram, an account that will feature photographs of owls tagged with #ethicalowlphoto.
If you want to learn more about this issue, I recommend this well-researched article written by another Ottawa area blogger: Great Gray Owls in Ottawa: Baiting and Abetting.