Owls: Birding's Troublesome Ambassador

  Here's a little video I made about watching owls.  This is a compilation of some of the owls I've digiscoped over the years.



It's one of those sorts of winters again: a northern owl species is heading into parts of the US in big numbers.

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This time it's snowy owls mostly along the east coast. Look at the above map from eBird. There have been some crazy reports, including 138 individual snowy owls found on Newfoundland and note the dot in the middle of the Atlantic there? That's because at least 2 snowy owls have made it to Bermuda...that's bananas!!

snowy owl habitat

If you are not on social media you have missed anyone you know on the east coast reporting a siting or photo. Or you may have missed the outrage of birders all over the place angry about people getting to close to the owls. Or you have missed the many lamentations of birders to everyone to back off from owls, give them their space and if you ever find an owl in the wild, just don't post it. Above is a picture of a snowy owl taken at a Wisconsin airport last winter. That lump on the left hand side of the roof is the owl.

snowy owl

Here it is through the scope (someone had banded and placed a patagial tag on this). Owls are a tricky issue in birding. They're cool, we all want to see one, even non birders--they make a great intro into the fun and wonderful (tho sometimes vexing) world of birding. I love the number of times I've taken non birding friends to an airport and showed them a quick snowy--it's a great way to show people that cool birds can be anywhere.  It's a charismatic looking bird, it has so much potential in a teachable moment. But owls need their space and we don't often give it to them. I almost wonder if owls have some sort of hypnotic power so that even when someone has the best photo they can get, they have to know just how close they can get to this strange and mysterious creature and that compels them to get closer.

I think most of the time it's just people who are new to birding, have access to birding locations and equipment like never before and simply do not know or realize that they are getting too close or are away of birding ethics.

What do you do with the owl conundrum when you see someone getting too close? Do you confront them? Do you secretly video them for public shaming on YouTube?

I think it's best to confront them at the time but do it in a way that assumes they know absolutely nothing about birds and in a calm way.


Perhaps, start with, "Isn't this owl amazing, you may not realize it, but getting this close to it is a problem for the bird and for others who want to see it."

I know some people are immediately not going to respond well.  No one likes to be told by stranger that they are doing something wrong. But If you can find a way to explain how they are one of hundreds of people a day seeing that owl, interfering with its ability to hunt and ability to survive, they might take that to heart.

Trying the approach of, "If we back off a little bit, we might get to see some really cool natural behaviors and interactions with other animals.  We might get to see it hunt or we might get to see and film something like this:


I don't think it's going to be solved any time soon, but we need to get info out to people that they don't have to get that close to owls to enjoy them.