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| p.3 #4 · Question regarding ethics in relation to baiting for photographic opportunities |
I received an email from an Ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey regarding recent behavior of the Snowy Owl in relation to baiting/feeding. Below is directly copied and pasted from the email. Enjoy.
"I had to pass on a couple of interesting experiences had by the CPO (Conservation Police Officer) that covers the Ogle/Carroll County area where the Snowy Owl currently is. I spent time contacting and talking to various governmental conservation biologists and police officers today. I had a couple of long conversations with the CPO today and he talked and researched with others concerning the legality of the things that the birders/photographers have been doing out in Ogle County. Beyond that, both he and the heritage biologist in that part of the state do not believe that such actions are the correct type of behavior to be putting this owl through. However, something very interesting happened when the officer drove out to the area this afternoon to see what he could see. As you might expect, this officer respects and enjoys wildlife, and enjoyed being a birdwatcher before he became a CPO. As he got out to the area, he soon found the owl, and it was perched atop a utility pole along Ogle Rd (the county line road; the direction it usually flushes to when being "pursued" with offerings of mice by the owl photographers). The crowds weren't there when the officer got there, likely because it had flushed so far away from them earlier in the day, so they gave up on it for the day…the usual scenario out there. However, there was one vehicle parked along the road a little farther down the road (right next to the owl on the pole) from where the CPO pulled over, and as he watched, the person first got out and looked up at the Snowy Owl. After getting a good look and a couple of pictures, the person reached back into the back seat of their car…and the CPO knew what was coming next… came back out with a mouse to feed the owl. She put it down and the owl quickly flew down and scooped it up and took it out to the field to eat. The officer pulled up next to the smiling birder from the Quad Cities (not a photographer, per se), who quickly lost the smile, and said, "I'm in trouble aren't I?" Beings that the officer could legally not arrest this person, he instead said, "what do you mean Debbie" (not her real name), "what makes you say that?" They proceeded to have a good conversation about what was going on out there, and "Debbie" admitted that she felt ashamed of what she had done (possibly what anyone confronted with a police office while they are doing just about anything that they know is wrong).
The officer then ran into another avid Illinois birder who will likely post tonight about their conversation, but an interesting thing happened while the officer sat alone in his car afterwards. He had been talking to me with the owl back to the telephone beside his car where the officer had pulled up to, to have a look at it…his 1st time ever seeing a Snowy Owl. He admitted to me it was a special moment for him and one he will never forget, of, in his words "a magnificent bird." He also told me that although he could have easily taken a nice picture of the owl right next to his vehicle he decided not too, partially given the circumstances, and partially as he just wanted to remember his time watching the bird, as it was. As we talked, the owl flew off, and the CPO figured it was now somewhere out in the field. But after hanging up with me, the 2nd birder pulled up to ask what the officer thought about the owl coming back to land right next to his vehicle alongside the road. The officer called me back just to pass this amazing aspect to his visit there. I think there is a very good lesson to be learned here…and the officer knew what that was, as well as I did, and he thought this would be good to pass along to the folks on the listserve for them to think about.
The moral to this story….obviously, this owl has obviously learned that road + car = human with owl food. Personally, in the several/many Snowy Owls I have seen (& read about) over the years, I have never heard of one flying over and landing right next to a car, especially after already having flown off from the road and said car and telephone pole earlier. The usual response by a Snowy Owl after too close of an approach by a human is to fly off quite a distance across a field, and not to return again for at least that particular day. And, that indeed has been what has been happening with this particular owl when the humans approach too closely with a mouse…which is why they have been noted "chasing" the owl a half mile or more west across the fields there. Of course, the sight of easily captured prey is too much for just about any hungry predator to take without instinctively reacting, which is why the photographers use this particular technique. As a biologist/ornithologist who has done a lot of reading on the subject, I can tell you that this owl has now become habituated to knowing people means food, which does not bode well for this particular owl's longevity. It is the same reason that dozens/hundreds (more??) of black bears are shot and killed each year in towns in this country by conservation officers (witnessed this myself several years ago) after coming to town for food too many times. This owl will now likely land on poles along roadsides a lot more in the future, than it would have without all of the baiting that has been going on. As I mentioned earlier, roads, cars/trucks, and raptors more times than not equals a dead raptor lying along the roadside, especially for any given raptor that starts making a habit out of hunting prey along busy roads. Hopefully, this info makes it out to some of the others…birders or bird photographers, that will be headed out to see the Ogle Snowy Owl with a box of mice (though I'm not sure things like this matter to people like the ones offering up all of the mice). The CPO plans on making a few more visits to stop and talk to some of the folks out there to see what some of their thoughts are. Good luck to this Snowy Owl in the years to come…it will need it."