The welfare and well-being of Ontario’s owls is no laughing matter.
With downward-trending owl populations due to increasing stressors and decreasing habitat availability, respecting owls and acting for the benefit of wildlife is vital. Distressing owls and causing them to leave their roosts yields further disturbance to owl populations and is a major threat to their safety.
As public interest in wildlife photography has increased, reports of unethical owl photography continues, including incidents of; trespassing, baiting, trampling habitat and being too close to the owls causing exacerbated distress.
Most owls are nocturnal and active at dawn and dusk and this is why owls are trickier to find than some other birds. For this reason, photographers will disturbingly resort to baiting in an attempt to capture charismatic owl images. Owl baiting is the practice of using live mice or lures to bait owls in an effort to capture the perfect action shot of an owl in flight. Sadly, as a result, owls suffer health hazards including; vehicular collisions, becoming entangled, and conditioned to lures and humans.
For their well-being, it is important not to reveal the location of owls in public forums. Last year in Ontario, after the location of a northern hawk owl was revealed to a network of birders, photographers parked illegally, baited the owl with string-bound rodents, and swarmed and followed the owl whenever it moved to a new perch.
Too Close For Comfort
Photographers frequently mistreat saw-whet owls who defensively stay still, by getting photos from disrespectful proximity. In November when visiting a site anticipating that saw-whets may have returned to a specific winter roost, disrespectful photographers pointed lenses at a resting owl too closely – less than two metres away.
The baiting of saw-whet owls occurred recently on an Ontario land trust property. After discovering that a photographer was baiting the owls, the president of the land trust released this statement in response:
“I wish to post a warning to all that there will be zero tolerance in the future for this unacceptable practice. [This] is private property, where people can access if they follow our posted rules, trespass charges will be immediate for any and all caught baiting any owls.”
Provincial parks and conservation areas also have rules against feeding wildlife, not just owls – many problems are associated with introduced foods that are not found naturally in the wild. Unethical behaviour not only sullies the reputation of individual photographers but also of birders who genuinely behave inoffensively.
Publications, including ON Nature magazine, will refuse photographs obtained by baiting, harassment or trespassing.
Noah Cole is Ontario Nature’s communications technician and a regular contributor to Ontario Nature's blog and ON Nature magazine. Noah is an accomplished naturalist with a passion for protecting the great outdoors and a nature photographer. Noah is the author of Ontario Wildlife Photography (canadianimages.net).