Rare species and birding ethics

by John Briggs on January 11, 2009

in Blog

Northern Hawk Owl | Copyright Lloyd Alexander

Northern Hawk Owl | Copyright Lloyd Alexander

Recently, a Northern Hawk Owl was sighted near the mid coast of Maine. I cringe when I see a report of a rare species on the list serv.

Case in point is the Great Gray Owl fiasco in Jackson, Maine just about one year ago. The owl was severely emaciated and after a week of uninterrupted viewing that interfered with its hunting and feeding habits, including being “chased” by birders and photographers, a wildlife rehabilitator was called to rescue the owl. The owl died shortly afterward.
The reported Northern Hawk Owl has not yet met this fate, but could have and still might. Yesterday, someone was releasing mice and rats bought from a pet store for the owl to eat. This in turn led to birders and photographers setting up for better views of the owl. The owl crossed the road several times, low enough that if any traffic was present it would have been hit.
This is unethical and totally wrong. Who is to say that the mice and rats aren’t harboring some kind of disease? What about the safety of the owl, needlessly exposing the creature to traffic and predators who would love to have the owl as a meal. What if the owl begins to associate humans and cars with food? I am sure the owl watched people get out of their cars and in turn saw the humans release the mice. This association could lead to the death of the bird.

Some people just don’t get it. I found this while reading a forum post about the ethics of baiting birds for photography. Here is this knuckleheads response to the post:

The reality is that these birds are tame simply because where they come from there are no people, so they have developed no fear. This is very common in northern owls, like the Great Gray, Snowy, Boreal and Hawk Owls. I have seen them in their native haunts in northern Canada, where no one was feeding them mice–and they are very tame. I was able to touch a Boreal Owl sitting in a tree, and all it did was open one eye and glare at me.

Touching a wild owl? Tame? Give me a break!

What about the ethics of releasing a pet store rodent into the wild? What about the law? Is it illegal to release a mammal, wild or exotic? When a live mouse is released, what about the possibility that it will escape and hide and now it’s in an environment that it was not raised for, now you run the risk of introducing harmful diseases or parasites.

When you trespass, bait, and otherwise annoy an animal to get a good view or shot, you’re no longer a birder or nature photographer; at that point you’ve become a nature exploiter. Animals get spooked, but then they just fly or run away, they’re afraid of you, that’s natural. When you bait an animal, you stress it because it doesn’t want to get any closer to you than it has to. But, it’s putting that natural fear aside to get food. It’s like putting a briefcase full of cash in the middle of a 4 lane highway – it just gets messy!

There is a heated debate about the baiting of the Northern Hawk Owl on the list serv today. Feeding yard birds with bird feeders versus feeding Owls from the far north. One of the responses on the list was from Amy in Rockport, Maine. I have recieved her permission to post it here.  She makes some very valid points. Thank you Amy!

I was afraid someone might compare typical back yard bird feeding to
what I feel is a totally different situation. Here are my thoughts,
maybe more murky than clear:

1. Setting up the “feeding station” on the opposite side of a busy
road from what seems to be the usual perching area has a built-in
risk. I watched the hawk owl on Friday swooping low enough over Rt.
130 to have been hit by a tall car or truck. I don’t care how careful
the Dad was. This is a risky set-up.

2. Who knows what extra exposure to disease (brought up by Don
Reimer’s post) the bird might have from the mice that were being fed.
Potentially another stress for the bird.

3. We have no way of knowing why this bird is here. Was it starving
in its home range? What happened that it is here? How rare are these
birds to this area in the winter? We can’t appreciate the stresses
that it is under. Doesn’t it seem logical that the less interference,
the less interface it has with humans the better off it might be? Did
you notice the chicken coop? What if the property owners who have the
chicken coop are troubled with rodents in their garage or house?
What if they poison-bait the mice? It seems likely to me that there
is good rodent hunting there because of the chickens and their
scattering feed around. Perhaps the hawk owl lucked into something
good. Or perhaps dangerous. I have read that the hawk owl can see
prey a half a mile away! Don’t you wonder what it senses when is sees
people moving around? What does that do to its stress level? We have
no clue what it does, do we? I hope the hawk owl moves on and away
from any possible further contact with humans soon.

4. I am well aware of how setting up a bird feeder can influence bird
life. To me, there is something different about one feeder feeding a
panoply of birds that are common winter or year round residents. Yes,
opportunistic hawks may profit. So will feral cats. Back yards have
become less able to provide wintertime food for birds. There are less
native plants that harbor either the frozen insects that birds forage
on and less fruit and seed bearing plants. Gardeners seem to prefer
to cut down the stalks of potential food plants and to clean up
underneath the plants for the sake of neatness and getting a jump on
the season in the spring. In doing so, they remove these sources of
food and hiding places for prey. So, in a way, bird feeders are an
insurance policy that might get a few birds through the night or
winter that might not make it otherwise. But this is one rarely seen
bird. It is rare on its home turf. It is way outnumbered by the
people paying attention to it. It just seems that that isn’t a good
thing. People can do crazy things. I remember an incident of saw-whet
owls being killed by thugs who found about them through the Rare Bird
Alert, for example.

5. I don’t agree that a Dad feeding the mice so his children can have
an wildlife experience is a good thing. This is not wildlife
watching. It is faking a drama. It is causing something to happen in
a rapid time course, something that is not teaching those children to
be patient and to watch quietly. It is fostering the lack of an
attention span, which is a problem with way too many people. It is
giving those children the wrong idea of how to interact with nature;
the Dad here is not being a good role model. It is also appropriating
and manipulating the scene for all bystanders.

I have bird feeders in my yard, and I also have a blind so I can photograph the birds. I am not stressing the birds. But I do not have 15 people standing around talking, clicking away on ipods, etc. Also, no one is releasing tame mammals in the yard either.

This debate is far from over. This type of activity will continue far after I am gone from the face of the earth. In the meantime, refresh yourself with the ABA Birding Ethics.

I would like to hear what you think. As always, comments are more than welcomed.

I would like to thank Lloyd Alexander for use of the beautiful photo he took of the Northern Hawk Owl. Also, many thanks to Amy for providing us with her insight.

Happy birding!


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