Many avid bird watchers stayed connected through listserv, social media or good, old-fashioned telephone. As a result when one of them spots a hard to find bird at a particular location, it is soon common knowledge and birders begin showing up en masse for their chance to see the particular bird that caused the alarm to be sounded. This was the case when a Townsend’s Solitaire was spotted near the library in Strafford, New Hampshire in the winter of 2011, for example. It's also, often the case with magnificent, but elusive owls.
So this past winter when reports and photographs of great grey owls began appearing from Rockcliffe parkway at Green's Creek in Ottawa, Canada, many birders and photographers loaded up their winter gear and headed out to see them. Those who did make the trip found that one of the primary reasons for all the photographs and likely for the sustained presence of no fewer than four great grey owls at this location was that they were being regularly baited.
What is owl baiting?
Owl baiting is the practice of throwing live mice out where owls are present to entice the owls to strike and present themselves for viewing or photography. The plentiful, easy to catch prey also encourages them to stay in one spot for an extended period. In most cases, owl baiting is done with average pet store variety mice. These can be picked up at most pet stores for a few dollars each.
The owl baiting debate
As you might imagine, there are a number of people who take a dim view of owl baiting. Some birding photo websites have even prohibited pictures taken from known owl baiting locations. The argument is that feeding these wild creatures will lead to them becoming acclimated to human contact and may even seek food from people, putting the birds at serious risk of injury or death.
There are anecdotal reports that owls in baiting situations come very close to people without any evidence of fear. On the other hand, there are similar reports of large owls behaving in exactly the same manner in wild situations where baiting has not been practiced. There does not seem to be conclusive evidence either way, on this issue.
Indeed, people do pose a significant threat to owls already. Tree-lined roads, you see, make excellent hunting grounds. An owl can sit in a tree scanning the road, just waiting for a mouse or small animal to make a mad dash from one side to the other. When it does, the owl silently drops from its perch and swoops in for the kill, only to be met very suddenly by several thousand pounds of steel and glass comprising an oncoming automobile. That, of course, has nothing to do with owl baiting per se, except to note that baiting that lures owls to or keeps them near a roadway is very likely to result in dead owls.
Another argument is that the commercially raised mice may be more likely to have some disease which may cause harm to the owls. I could find no evidence, even anecdotal, of this ever occurring. Having been married to a pet store manager and having spent consider time there, I can say definitively that these mice are raised either as pets for human children or as food for carnivorous pets such as snakes or large lizards. They are not fed hormones or antibiotics as it would not be worth the expense or trouble. There is no reason to believe that store bought mice would be any more or less harmful to the owl than wild mice or other natural prey.
Some would say that after being baited or fed for a period of time, the owl might lose its natural hunting skill, either through disuse or simply because it's looking for the easy hand-out. Again, there is no reason to believe that baiting wild owls for a period of month or two during a particularly harsh winter when they may be on the move in search or food has any effect on their ability to catch wild prey. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that such a perfected hunting machine can be trained to overcome its hunting instinct so quickly and easily.
I've seen it argued that baited owls are being overfed, and in the same argument, a witness says that these overfed owls were also observed catching and eating wild voles during extended intervals between baiting. That argues against them either losing their hunting abilities or being overfed to unhealthy levels. In the case of the great grey owls in Ottawa, photographer Eduardo del Solar who witnessed the event related that the owls, after eating their fill in the morning, would retire to nap throughout the day and return for more just before dusk. That's pretty close to a natural feeding schedule for owls.
Del Solar also noted that "I do not believe these owls cared one way or the other about humans. They only care about rodents in their belly or in the field. Humans seemed to be just a visual background."
In reality, it's difficult, if not impossible to determine whether the proximity of humans to the owls caused them any physiological stress. I've seen people bring their dogs up close to investigate a beached harp seal, completely (and quite mistakenly) sure that the seal wouldn't mind or be stressed by the animal's curiosity or the owner's presence. In the case of an owl, though, there is a clear and easy path of retreat if it so chooses.
It is possible to overfeed any wild animal, or to establish routines and patterns of feeding that condition the animals to expect or even demand food when certain cues are present (including the simple presence of human beings). To my way of thinking, this is a valid concern. If a previously baited owl goes through a period where prey is scarce, will it seek out people or even groups of people in search of food? If so, then the practice could place it at higher risk for injury and death under some circumstances. Owl baiting performed frequently enough and of sufficient duration for these cognitive associations to form and be retained in the owl's mind should be avoided, but there's no evidence on how quickly or slowly those habits might be made.
In my opinion, done with considered precautions (including duration, frequency, and location), owl baiting is not at all harmful to the owls. Without adequate consideration for these factors or when limits are pushed too far, however, the practice can become dangerous to the birds.
For many nature and wildlife enthusiasts, visiting a location where owls are being baited may be the only chance they get to see these magnificent animals in their lives. Others may get to know them only through the photographs taken at such locations. As del Solar put it, "It is impossible for me to think how an experience like this could lessen the appreciation for nature."
See more photos of owls and other exotic birds in wild settings at the Birds of the Americas 2013 exhibit.