With all the Snowy Owl sightings in our area this winter, the common debate about baiting them for photography has risen again. For those of you who don’t know what baiting is, many photographers will take live mice out into the field and release them near owls and other birds of prey in order to get better shots. Not only can food get the birds closer to a photographer, it can also present what some consider incredible shots. I personally do not bait owls or any bird of prey and do not agree with it for several reasons.
Baiting often takes place near county roads which draws the birds closer to the road resulting in collisions with vehicles. Not only can this cause injury or death to the bird, but to the occupants of the vehicle as well. Wildlife rehabilitation centers treat owls and other types of birds of prey every year with broken wings and other injuries as a result of being hit by cars while swooping down on prey. I viewed several photos last year of a Great Gray Owl in Algonquin Park on a photo sharing website that was being baited by photographers. After a few weeks of photos I read that the bird had been killed in a collision with a car. I can only ask myself if this bird wasn’t baited so close to a road would it have been killed? Perhaps it would have found another area to hunt away from traffic if not encouraged by the handouts. Is the life of such a beautiful bird worth it for a picture?
Photographers who bait owls also tend to walk out in the fields in order to do so. This quite often will spook the birds causing them to fly further away or leave the area completely. Not only does this put added stress on the bird, it ruins the opportunity for other birders and photographers to view the bird. Many websites that report bird sightings have stopped reporting Snowy Owl and Short Eared Owl sightings for this exact reason. I have read multiple reports this winter of Snowy Owl sightings only to read updates later that the owls were chased from the area by photographers. Snowy Owls in particular do not move too far from an area once set up for the winter. They will also return to the same area year after year if not disturbed. If you do not get a look or photo the first time around, keep returning to the spot until you do. The bird will likely be in the same area and if you are patient it will eventually present a good look.
Most photographers that enter farmer’s fields in order to get closer to owls or bait them do not have permission from the land owner and are therefore trespassing. Regardless if you are pro or anti baiting you can’t argue the trespassing debate. If someone walked into your backyard with a camera, binoculars or a handful of seed in order to view a cardinal you would have a problem with it; so what makes it okay on a farm when the house is a kilometer or more away? Fields this time of year can be planted with winter wheat, in which case farmers definitely do not want you in their field.
This is a very sensative subject depending on what side you are on. Photographers who do bait will argue that it is legal to do so and compare it to feeding birds in your backyard. I disagree with the comparison to a bird feeder. I feed songbirds in my yard that typically feed on native seeds, insects, and berries. These three foods are not readily available during winter, therefore I am providing food that is otherwise scarce. In my opinion, offering a Snowy Owl a store bought mouse in an area in close proximity to a city dump is not doing the owl any favours. Why are there so many owls near the dump? My guess is that the dump is a great place to find mice, rats, and gulls; no shortage of food exists for the owls.
Regardless of your position on this subject, try to be respectful of at least one of the following when out searching for owls: other birders, photographers, land owners and of course the owls.