Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Of mice and owls…and combat birding

Last Saturday afternoon, a tiny boreal owl appeared in my backyard. I don’t know where it came from; there were no tracks around it in the fresh snow. When I walked up to it, the little owl was barely upright. It seemed unaware of my presence.

At first I thought perhaps the owl had flown into a window. More likely, it was starving. Even though they are a northern bird, boreal owls have trouble reaching their prey during deep snowy winters. We’ve had a lot of snow on the North Shore this winter, as well as intermittent thaws that turned the snow into a concrete-like crust when freezing temperatures returned. The rodents the owls eat are beneath the crust.

In past winters, I’ve seen boreal owls perched near my bird feeder after dark, no doubt looking for rodents foraging in the seed litter beneath it. One winter, we kept finding the bushy tails of flying squirrels around the feeder; all that remained after some nighttime predator’s dinner. Yet another time, I found a dead boreal owl in the yard as the snow began melting, most likely another starvation victim.

Hoping to prevent another case of starvation, I went inside to find something for the little owl to eat. I shaved off some slivers of uncooked meat and placed them near the bird to no avail. The owl was fading fast. I decided to leave it alone and see what happened. When I checked on it an hour later, the owl was dead.

In the past, biologists have collected dead boreal owls for study, so I picked up the bird and put it in the garage. Later, I posted a picture of the bird when it was still alive on Facebook, where it quickly attracted attention. It wasn’t long before I had three requests from people who wanted the bird for educational purposes at schools and a nature center. I contacted my local conservation officer about the legality of giving the bird to someone. She told me that owls are protected by state and federal laws, requiring anyone who possesses them to have appropriate permits. I decided to turn the bird over to her. She can jump through the appropriate legal hoops to transfer the owl to an educator.

I was a little surprised by all of the attention the owl received on Facebook. I should have known better. Owls are charismatic creatures that people love to see. The birds can even create a minor tourism sensation. In the 2011 movie, The Big Year, three fanatical birders travel to the Sax-Zim Bog north of Duluth for a chance to see a great gray owl. In the birding world, the Sax-Zim Bog is a pretty famous place, attracting scores of birders from across the country every winter to see great grays and other northern birds. While the bog is off the beaten path, it contains a road system that allows birders to get around and view birds from the warmth and comfort of vehicles, including tour buses. You can even hire a local guide to take you out and see the birds.

The bog also attracts wildlife photographers, who come primarily for the owls. This is a place where you can consistently find birds to photograph, especially if you are hooked into the network of birders who share information about recent sightings via the Internet. Apparently birding, like fishing, contains a cadre of yahoos who can’t wait to share their success and hotspots online.

Taking pictures of an owl going about its daily business isn’t enough for some photographers, who will do just about anything to get a dramatic shot of an owl. Northern birds like great gray and snowy owls have little fear of humans, so it is relatively easy to attract them to a bait. A surprising number of photographers toss out mice for the owls to swoop down and grab with their talons, creating a controlled situation to photograph dramatic shots of hunting owls in flight. This happens often enough that many birders have encountered photographers, including groups of photographers and even wildlife photography classes, baiting owls. Although it is legal in most locales, not all birders approve of baiting and consider it unethical.

Among the latter is my friend and professional wildlife photographer Mike Furtman of Duluth. He spends a lot of time photographing the natural behavior of owls and has been vocal about his displeasure with baiters. Recently, he’s begun “outing” photographers who bait owls on Facebook, including some who teach photography classes and a top nature photographer. He is getting lots of positive feedback from his Facebook followers. Whether he’ll convince any of the baiters to “cross over from the dark side” remains to be seen.

Call me a skeptic, but I’m not sure he’ll convince baiters to change their ways. When it comes to using food to attract wildlife, it is hard for many folks to turn back once they begin doing so. Deer poachers are a relevant example. The Minnesota DNR recently reported that once again, illegal baiting topped the list of deer hunting violations in 2016. Some hunters have begun using cheap guns so they don’t mind having them confiscated when they get caught. This sort of behavior suggests that even if baiting owls became illegal, at least some photographers would keep doing it.

Another aspect of birding puzzles me as well, although I don’t consider it unethical. Many people seem content to follow up on sightings posted on social media and join a small crowd to view the bird. I liken the situation to those times when word gets out about great fishing and everyone shows up to cash in on the action. Some folks refer to such crowded conditions as “combat fishing.” Will “combat birding” become a new catch phrase?

While I have the good fortune to spend much of my outdoor time in places with few people, I’ve discovered that fishing or watching wildlife in a crowd detracts from the experience. It is difficult to connect with the natural world in the midst of human social interactions. I can’t imagine how having someone bait an owl that a group of people, likely strangers, are watching would do anything other than create a potentially volatile situation. Let’s hope combat birding isn’t taken to a new level.

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