Of Mice and Owls

A Northern hawk owl being baited with a domestic mouse at Sax-Zim Bog. The camera and mouse pictured are NOT the author’s.

It’s getting bad out there.

The irruption of Snowy owls in the eastern United States this winter has photographers and birders at each other’s throats over the issue of baiting owls.

For the uninitiated, baiting means luring the owls with store bought mice in order to get dramatic, close-up views of the birds. I know photographers who do it, I know birders who do it, and I know farmers in rural Wisconsin who do it.

This year isn’t unique.  Owls of all sorts are baited every winter when their natural food supply, usually rodents, becomes scarcer.

Like everyone involved with this issue, I have an opinion on the subject; an opinion I hope is fairly moderate. High emotions tend to bubble to the surface with topics like this, so please read it all the way through before you call me an idiot and close the tab.

I will tell you that baiting owls is so common that last year, the winter of 2012-13, a mouse shortage developed in North America.  I can’t say that the shortage was solely the result of baiting, but laboratories, animal rehab centers and pet owners that use the mice for their own purposes ran low last winter, yet the owl baiters I observed were out in force with a seemingly unending supply of mice.

In short, for some people, feeding pet store mice to wild owls is a common and acceptable practice.

For others, people pursuing essentially the same goal of close-up views and dramatic photos, baiting is unethical and potentially injurious to the birds. They will point out a host of reasons that it’s a bad idea to feed wild owls.

Most of those reasons are completely accurate in my opinion. Baiting is not my way.

So now you know my slant. I am not an owl baiter. I have been accused of it, as have other wildlife photographers I know who do not bait, but I don’t do it. Usually just I shrug off the accusations. 

But this year I was able to witness both sides of the issue in late January in person at an internationally known birding area in northeast Minnesota called Sax-Zim Bog

A half-dozen species of owls and a multitude of other species regularly appear in the bog, and people literally come from around the world to search for birds on their “life list.” This coming weekend they are having their International Birding Festival.

Sax-Zim is a beautiful, wild place. And for the most part it’s very peaceful.

I went there several days in January, and one day while I was photographing a Northern hawk owl in the bog, a situation unfolded which finally inspired this story. And it has me re-examining my own definition of baiting.

My previous contact with owl baiters had always been a long-distance affair. In other words, when I saw them coming I left. But this year I decided that I’m simply not going to leave a great photo op because I don’t agree with other people’s methods, especially when I’ve driven hundreds of miles to get there and I have limited time to shoot.  I will not stop where baiting is already in progress because I don’t wish to get my photos that way, but neither will I leave if I was there first.

Owls and other raptors will fly toward the camera without the use of bait. Like every other type of wildlife photography it takes a lot of preparation and patience, but it does happen. (See the Snowy owl photo below, taken the same day as the hawk owl photos.) That’s the kind of photo I was attempting to get in Sax-Zim that day with the hawk owl.

As I was photographing the hawk owl, three vehicles pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the road from my vehicle. And something peculiar happened. The owl which had been about 40 yards away from me on the west side of the road, flew directly over my head, over the three new vehicles, and perched on a brushy limb about 20 yards away from the newcomers on the east side.  I soon found out that the owl and the newcomers were not strangers. As the photographers set up cameras and lenses and tripods, the owl watched them intently, even hovering directly over them.  Clearly this was a habituated owl.

Then they broke out the mice.

From my perspective this was a great opportunity to talk to these guys and to photograph them setting up their well-oiled routine. I walked over and introduced myself.  I took a few photos of the owl perched in a willow near their vehicle, and then, when they starting using the mice, I switched from a long lens to a shorter lens and took the baiting photos used here.

This story has been in the back of my mind for some time, and here was my chance to get an inside look. We talked off and on as I photographed them running through the baiting process three times. I found out who they were, where they were from, and how often they did this. They were cordial, and they were insistent that they “feed,” they don’t “bait.” Semantics aside, they were pleasant enough guys who were just doing something I didn’t want to do. . . something I won’t do.

Vehicles came and went. Some people got out and watched the proceedings. Some stayed in their cars. Some took their own photos.

A mouse being readied for the hawk owl at Sax-Zim bog. The mouse is about to be placed under the McDonald’s cup. The fishing line visible is then used to remove the cup when the photographers are ready.

Then, as I was taking the photo to the right, a person positioned behind the group loudly announced that we were all “pathetic!”  

Suddenly I was one of “them.”

But since I didn’t get any of those amazing in-your-face shots as the owl grabbed mouse after mouse, I didn’t feel even a little pathetic. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about the opportunity to get the information and the photos I wanted without pissing off anyone.

And the photos I wanted were not the same ones the baiters wanted. The baiters even offered to let me place a remote camera next to the mouse to get the great shots they were getting; an offer I politely declined.

Had the Anonymous Insulter bothered to ask, I might have told him what I was doing. He did not. He assumed the worst of everyone, told us all what he thought and then hurried away. But the Insulter actually did me a favor – more on that in a bit. 

The situation devolved further when another vehicle pulled up.

A  birding expert from the area arrived and began taking photographs of vehicles, license plates, and people there, including the “innocent bystanders.” He then got into a shouting match with one of the four baiters. The egos of both men were on prominent display as they recited their résumés to each other. But I have to say, the expert did himself no favors with his behavior, and with some false accusations he directed at the baiting crew.

Had the expert actually talked politely to the people there, baiters and non-baiters alike, he would have learned some interesting things that he might have used later to further his cause; something that might have helped him argue against baiting. Instead he learned nothing. It’s a shame.

However, despite disagreeing with his manner, I agree with the expert on the baiting issue.

I don’t believe it helps wildlife to receive supplemental food from people, no matter how well-meaning that feeding may be. I have felt this way for a long time.

I don’t think that feeding white-tailed deer to help them through a tough northern winter is biologically sound. Likewise, I don’t think trucking tons of hay to the elk in Grand Teton National Park every year is smart. I don’t think giving a black bear a sandwich from a picnic basket is cute. And I don’t think giving mice to owls is the right thing to do. So I don’t do it.

But – and this is important- it’s not illegal to give mice to owls. (Edit: at the time of this writing, it is not illegal to feed owls in Minnesota where this scene took place.)

To me, that means I have no reason to impose my beliefs on other people who are doing something that is their legal right. To escalate a situation through insults and by photographing license plates as if you are conducting a criminal investigation, to paint everyone present with the same broad brush, and to avoid constructive conversation in favor of loud accusations is counterproductive.

I can only choose not to participate in those legal activities I disagree with. And if I feel strongly enough about a topic, I can try to have the law amended. That is the only way to end the practice – make it illegal. That will drive some practitioners underground, of course, but most people will just stop baiting.

For now, however, the practice is legal in most places. So, I won’t bait owls, but I won’t try to stop you from doing it either. I won’t curse you, insult you, and I certainly won’t steal your box of mice and speed away (something I witnessed last year over the same issue, but in a different locale.)

But, too, I won’t leave if I was already there when someone shows up with a bucket of mice. I just won’t shoot an owl taking the bait.

In the end, unless it is being used for editorial purposes (like the one at the top of this story,) the only photo of mine you will ever see featuring a raptor coming at the camera, will be from a natural hunt with no bait present. If you ever see me with a mouse in my hand, it will be a dead one I’m removing from my house – and there won’t be any owls present.

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The Snowy owl above was photographed at Sax-Zim the same day as the Hawk owl above was baited. No bait was used to attract this Snowy by anyone present, and this particular owl made several attempts at voles (mostly unsuccessful) during the time the author was present. This attempt was a miss. The meadow voles were never visible to the author – they were always just under the snow.

While we’re on the topic, I don’t photograph captive animals and pass them off as wild either. I don’t digitally move animals from one scene into another and call it real, and I don’t do “nature photography” like this coming out of Indonesia.

There are many wildlife photographers who do these things, but it’s not against the law, so I grit my teeth and bear it. I grit them harder every time one wins a photo contest, but I don’t run the contests either.

Now back to the Anonymous Insulter. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have since become aware that he is a well-known bird photographer, and that many of his shots are taken at his feeders near his home. That gave me the direction I needed for this writing.

The Insulter baits birds to get them super-close for his photos, yet somehow manages to be outraged when others bait birds for their own purposes.

I won’t condemn him for taking his photos because I also take photos of songbirds at my feeders. But here’s the real difference:

The hypocrisy of my feeding songbirds at home while being generally against feeding owls prevents me from shouting insults at strangers.

Tolerance and moderation are in short supply these days, and obviously bird enthusiasts and photographers aren’t immune to blanket indictments and indignation.

“Do it my way, or you’re just plain wrong!” is a sadly prevalent perspective, and it’s not helpful wherever you find it – even in a bog in northern Minnesota.

I’ve recently read several attempted explanations as to why backyard bird feeders are not the same as baiting. Usually the argument is that the birds come and go at will from the feeders. That way they are somehow “wilder” than habituated owls. But that doesn’t hold up to any kind of real scrutiny.

Of course feeding backyard birds is baiting birds. Whether they are finches or owls, you and I are using food as a positive reinforcement to alter the bird’s behavior; to get them to do what we want them to do, where and when we want them to do it. It’s a time-tested way to train animals, straight from B.F. Skinner. The Anonymous Insulter knows that too and he takes songbird photos with that knowledge.

If you want to prove to yourself that your birds are conditioned too, put your feeders out at the same time everyday, then take them in at night, and see how long it takes for the little wild birds to figure out your schedule. Hell, I know several people, including a professional naturalist, who hand feed chickadees. There’s your conditioned response.

At my own house the bluebirds gather in the branches over my head every time I bring out the bag of mealworms – it’s absolutely classic behavioral conditioning.

Actually, it’s kind of neat that they are waiting for me, but the image of the hawk owl hovering over the cars at Sax-Zim is now what comes to mind when it happens. It’s unsettling. I am a bluebird baiter.

We put up feeders to satisfy our own wishes. We want to see the birds. We want to photograph the birds. If we really only did it to help the birds, we would scatter our bird feeders all over the countryside, in out-of-the-way spots where the birds could feed unmolested. And we would make sure those feeders stayed stocked at all times. And then we would go there occasionally to get our bird photos. (There are a couple places like that at Sax-Zim, by the way.) 

But having them just outside the kitchen window is so much more fun.

One of the best arguments against feeding any wild creatures is that it causes them to become dependent on that food source. And that’s absolutely true. Once you start feeding, in winter particularly, you have to keep it up as long as the weather is cold and the birds stay. That’s an unspoken pact we enter into with the birds. And it’s as true in the black-oil sunflower seeds/chickadees equation as it is for mice and owls. But the fact is, occasionally feeders run dry.

Even if you do make the commitment to continual feeding, you and I are potentially causing harm to the birds in other ways by bringing them to our feeders.

Raise your hand if you feed birds at home and have NOT had one smash into a window and land motionless below. That happens frequently, but most songbird enthusiasts don’t like to talk about it. I hate to think how many birds have died in my yard from window strikes over the years, despite actively trying to prevent the collisions using every trick I can. It also happens at the brand-spanking-new Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, which has windows large and small throughout the little building, all looking out upon well-stocked bird feeders. I stopped one morning and was in the building for less than five minutes when an American goldfinch crashed headlong into one of the large bird-viewing windows there.

Don’t get me wrong, the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog group does wonderful educational work, and most of them have been exceedingly nice to me, but even their feeders have a cost.

The same Northern hawk owl pictured above with a wild vole it caught prior to the baiter’s arrival.

The corollary to that when it comes to the baiting of owls is that feeding the owls makes them less wary of humans, and it puts them in close proximity to roads. You already know that birds and automobiles don’t mix any better than birds and glass windows do.

It seems when we get involved with feeding, birds die.

And then there’s the issue of disease. The fervent anti-baiters will also tell you that domestic mice can introduce disease into the wild owls. That’s possible, but not very likely. Mice sold in pet stores are raised in controlled facilities and bred to feed to other domestic animals. Disease is the last thing anyone wants there – it’s not profitable.

The disease issue is much more prevalent at wild bird feeding stations and there are reams of information available at the click of a mouse. The long and short of it is… Anytime you congregate many animals into a small area by feeding, the chance of disease spreading disastrously through the population, and across populations, is magnified immensely.

Salmonella is the most frequent feeding station disease among birds. There are Salmonella outbreaks every year and every year thousands of songbirds die because of it. Mold kills backyard birds too. We try to keep immaculate feeders, disinfecting them regularly, but we don’t always succeed, and then we put the birds at risk.

Ever toss bread to the ducks and geese at the local park? Then you are definitely endangering the bird’s welfare by inducing them to gather in dense flocks. Botulism is a major waterfowl killer and can wipe out ducks by the hundreds in one location.

And there is tuberculosis, and conjunctivitis, and avian pox, etc., etc.

In the end, there are lot’s of reasons not to feed wild animals anywhere – unless you are willing to accept some collateral damage.

Rationalizing those reasons away is disingenuous and I won’t do it – my hypocrisy has limits.

I bait birds – I just do it with sunflower seeds, suet and mealworms, not mice.

So who am I to condemn the owl baiters?

An American robin near the author’s feeding stations and birdbath.

 

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Baiting Northern hawk owls with domestic mice at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.
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52 thoughts on “Of Mice and Owls

  1. Your personal disclaimer is well thought out and written. Baiting the owls or any other wild animal is just that . At least in this instance it is for a photo shot the kind that is framed and not stuffed.

  2. Regardless of what “side” you are on…I admire you for choosing what is right for you without bashing others who may have a different opinion. Unlike all the other posts I’ve read on this debate, this isn’t one-sided and it speaks to your character.

  3. Very good article. I love your photos and I admire the fact that you have taken a stand on this situation. It has never ocurred to me that the way some of these beautiful photograhs that I love to look at , came to be because of baiting. Although I hate mice, I quiet simply would not be able to snap pictures of birds grabbing the mice up for food. After some soul-searching, I realize I have been guilty of baiting with my bird feeders! I never really looked at it that way, but I have come to realize that in the summer, I have just as many hummingbirds flying around my flowers as I did when I had a feeder outside my window for them! Thank you for educating me and please keep taking the beautiful photos . Whatever you’re doing seems to be working quite well for you! An excellent photographer with Integrity! Thank you.

  4. Keith, I hope you don’t mind if I make a couple of points. First, baiting owls can be illegal, depending upon where it takes place. It would break the law in national parks, for instance, which prohibit the manipulation of wildlife.

    It is also apparently illegal in Wisconsin thanks to this 2003 law: “No person may place, deposit, or allow the placement of any material to feed or attract wild animals for non-hunting purposes including recreational and supplemental feeding, except as allowed below for birds and small mammals.

    Feeding Birds and Small Mammals: Material may be placed solely for the purpose of attracting and feeding wild birds and small mammals if:

    • placed in bird feeding devices and structures at a sufficient height or design to prevent access by deer.

    • the structures and devices are within 50 yards of a dwelling devoted to human occupancy.”

    While currently not illegal in MN, there is growing concern by the FWS about this practice. They tell me that if the bird were injured while being manipulated — some photographers place the mice in tubes, jars, etc., and I’ve seen video of a snowy owl actually striking a camera on which the mouse was placed — they would consider it a “takings” under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I did hear about the incident you described, and was told that the baiters had the mouse in a tube or jar, and that the owl hit the container at least once. True? I believe this is where the photographing of license plates, etc., came into play. Causing harm to the bird would have been a crime, and knowing who was present at the time would be important.

    Finally, I’d like to respectfully disagree with equating baiting owls with backyard bird feeding. Songbirds don’t come and hover over you when they see you coming. Move quickly, and they scatter. Place a sunflower seed out in front of you and wait with your camera, and you’ll wait an awfully long time. In other words, although the food source is indeed artificial, the birds behave with all their natural survival instincts intact. They come and go on their schedule. These northern owls, however, are completely devoid of a healthy natural fear of humans when presented with a mouse. They can’t refuse. As you saw, they will fly into a throng of people over and over and over again. They can be lured to, and across, highways (I’ve seen it many times). They will take mice off the hood of a car (I’ve witnessed that too). They’ve lost self control and behave in a manner that is contrary to their own best interest. This simply isn’t the case with a pine siskin at a thistle feeder!

    I could go on and on about why I think this behavior is bad for the bird, bad for the bird viewing public, and bad for our craft, but I won’t. I appreciate the time you took to write and post this opinion piece, and hope my comments add some value to the discussion. Since our paths cross once in awhile afield, perhaps we can talk more about it over a beer after a good day in the marsh!

    1. Thanks for your addition to this article Michael as you brought forth some excellent points. I’ve learned a few things, but one thing is for sure, this issue is not going to go away anytime soon. If anything, its only going to get worse. Feeding backyard birds does not change behaviors, but baiting owls definately does. Maybe from reading your post, more people will understand, and decide in the best interest of the owls not to bait. One can only hope. Happy trails!

      1. Thank you Pamela. Michael did make some good points, but if you read my reply to him you will note that we disagree on the bird feeder part of the issue. The link I included in my reply to him is nothing but a Google search on “hand feeding chickadees” and if you look for yourself, you will immediately see that there are many wild bird species, not just owls or chickadees, which respond to positive rewards, and they’re behavior is easily modified with bird seed. What is pictured at the link certainly can’t be natural behavior and in their own best interest. You are entitled to disagree, but I maintain that feeding stations can easily be called bait stations.

    2. Thank you Michael for your perspective!

      You’re right of course that I should have clarified that owl feeding/baiting is legal Minnesota, where the story took place. Laws vary from place to place.

      In regards to the rumor spreading that “the baiters had the mouse in a tube or jar, and that the owl hit the container at least once.” That did not happen while I was present. You can see a square plastic bottle in the second photo above, but the mouse was always removed from the bottle and placed under the McDonald’s cup. The baiters had a fishing line tied to the cup and pulled the cup off the mouse when they were ready to shoot. I watched and listened to them set up the baiting scenario several times, and the owl always caught the mouse during the time I was there. Of course, I left when I had the info and photos I needed and don’t know what happened after that..

      I think we will just have to disagree on the backyard feeders issue. I know my feeders alter the bird’s behavior. I see it everyday, as I mentioned in the story. And judging by the hundreds of photos here: https://www.google.com/search?q=hand+feeding+chickadees&espv=210&es_sm=122&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=zqj8UoypG6asyAHWqIC4AQ&ved=0CC4QsAQ&biw=1920&bih=961 I wouldn’t have to wait very long at all to change the behavior of chickadees (black-capped and boreal), nuthatches, jays (blue and gray,) woodpeckers, hummingbirds, etc. The bird behavior seen in the dozens (maybe hundreds, I didn’t scroll past page one) of images at the link is a “conditioned response.” Of course, if you move fast, they’ll all fly away…but they’ll be right back. And the behavior seen is definitely not wild behavior and in their own best interests. Food is a powerful training tool. That’s the same for songbirds and owls.

      Thank you again for the measured and thoughtful reply!

  5. Well thought out and very well written point of view Keith. I had never considered the ethical contradiction of my back yard feeders vs the owl baiters so prevalent here in the Alberta Prairies… Thank you for taking the time to put it all together so clearly and non-judgmentally.

  6. What a great article, I have never actually came across anyone doing this and I am not sure I could be friendly per say but I really admire your integrity. I take pride in my purist approach I guess and feel a little resentment against what I call the “cheaters” LOL I can’t help that, it’s the competitor in me. I would not engage in confrontation and name calling that’s for sure.

    The cup thing confused me for a minute 🙂 until I figured it out hahaa I guess they hide the mouse under the cup then pull the string and let the mouse go when they are ready?? weird.

    1. Thnk you for your comments, Nick. I hope I didn’t leave you with the impression that all owl photos are taken this way, but at least you are now aware that some of what you see is captured this way.

  7. Very well written. I would have to agree with you that feeding song birds sunflowers and Owls mice is baiting/feeding, though there are some difference. I think your article will make people think a little. Yelling and screaming at someone is not the right approach. It like talking politics you don’t just come out and tell someone they are wrong, because that will get you no where.

    What about calling? I always wonder when, where, or if it is appropriate.

    1. Thank you Wklein. Making people think a little about it is all I can ask.

      The calling issue is interesting and I’m glad you brought it up. It is certainly akin to baiting in that it changes their behavior and potentially puts them in harms way. I know it’s a time-honored tradition among some birders and some photographers as a way to get songbirds to reveal their position or come closer. Certainly worth further consideration.

  8. Excellent read. I witnessed this last year in Wisconsin. I am a wildlife photographer and we had the honor of a Great Gray Owl in the southern part of our state. It was an amazing experience to see and photograph the owl but there were a lot of confrontations between photographers about the same thing. I drove a few hours from my home in Green Bay to see if I could get some images and I did but after being there for a while some people showed up and were actually taunting the owl with mice to get their shots. Pulling the mouse out of their pocket so the owl would fly towards them and then at the last minute pulling it away. It made me very uncomfortable being there. There were several of us that were happy just to see it and photograph it from a distance and pretty much mind our own business. I was able to get some close up shots as well by learning his pattern and putting myself in a spot where I had a chance to get a good shot. I don’t like or agree with the practice of baiting and do the same as you when it comes to who was there first.

    1. Thank you Jeff. I’m pretty sure I know the GGO you are referring to. I stayed away from that owl just because of the reports I was hearing about the baiting and the confrontations. I was told that the local sheriff and the local warden were well aware of the situation, and were even present off and on, but could not intervene because no laws were broken. Since you were there, does that info jibe with what you saw?

    1. Hi Mike, Thanks for the link! Do you have any background on the case?
      The info in the link was pretty cryptic. Did he get cited for baiting specifically, or for something beyond that? “Harass,kill” covers a lot of ground.

  9. Many birders who are vehemently against baiting owls, do so regularly for gulls, “chumming” with bread. In fact this weekend at North Point Marina, near Zion, IL is the Annual Gull Frolic, where huge amounts of bread will be used to bring gulls in for closer looks, hoping in particular to attract the rarer ones. This is where there are signs specifically forbidding such feeding, but the authorities have been persuaded to overlook the offense at this time. People just make their own distinctions of what is ethical and not, depending on whether they do it.
    Personally I don’t want to do that to a mouse, but if others do so in a limited manner, I am not offended.

  10. I don’t think baiting is right when lots of people are doing it. Disease and parasite worries. And it’s unfair to photographers who are purists. Back when Les Line was editing Audubon we were informed, to our great chagrin, that we had published a two-page spread of a barred owl swooping down on a tethered gerbil. And I am not guiltless because I once presented a couple of white mice to a spotted owl who ate them alive a foot from my legs. I, in turn, was eaten alive my animal-rights people when I wrote about it.

    1. Thanks for the response, Ted. This is a little off the baiting topic, but I just read an FWS report about shooting barred owls in the Pacific northwest to protect spotted owls. Ethically speaking, it’s a tough spot to be in when you have to kill one protected animal to save another. And there will always be critics no matter what choice is made. Here’s the link to the report: http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Species/Data/NorthernSpottedOwl/BarredOwl/Documents/ROD.Sep-13.pdf

      1. From what I understand, he was fined not because he was baiting, but because he and his partner were continuously flushing/chasing the bird thought a field and throwing objects at it to get it to fly. This is 2nd hand information that came across the Wisconsin birding list. He had been baiting it for several days and the DNR said there was nothing they could do about the baiting.

  11. Awesome article! Just so well written…even when I wanted to disagree with you, I found myself being supportive of your positions just because of the thoughtful intelligent ways that you presented them. Thank you for writing this up. Just for disclosure, I feed owls live mice, and usually there is photography involved, but definitely not always. I used to be against the practice, because people in the birding community who I looked up to said it was bad, and that the people who did it were bad. Through a process of self exploration, I’ve discovered that for me, feeding owls is not bad, and most of the people that I encounter who also feed owls are very nice people who are themselves not in any way convinced that the way they feed owls is bad. Your article is a good slap in the face wake up call, that I need to be more intelligent and thoughtful about how I express my experience, feelings, and opinions on the subject. Thanks again. Simply one of the best write ups I’ve seen on the subject, and I scour all over looking for information like the kind that you provided. You’re a very talented photographer as well, but that’s easy for me to be agreeable with.
    Regards,
    Shawn Zierman.

    1. Thank you Shawn. Over the years I have met with many people on both sides and I have yet to meet anyone I consider a “bad” person. People are passionate about their beliefs, and that’s good, but there is no reason to vilify the other side, in my opinion. Disagreements are expected, but how we handle those disagreements is important in whether anything positive comes from it.

      And if the article causes anyone to reexamine their own position, (as I did,) then it was worth writing.

  12. Thanks for the feedback sir. I get that you don’t feed mice to owls, but do you ever put a mental asterisk on an image of birds like the NHO on Owl Avenue? Where you know that locals like myself frequently feed the bird, and that is in part why it’s there, and that is in part why it behaves like it does when people around. And you are able to make great images around a comfortable owl, in part because of the feeding that has been done by others when you weren’t around? I’m not trying to play any gotcha game here…. Just asking if you make a mental asterisk for those images, that even though you did not feed the snowy owl over their by Zim Road…the owl acts differently now becasue it has been fed…?
    Versus owl images of owls where there is no known feeding occuring. Just curious how you classify those images….two of which you posted in the thread. And they are both gorgeous!!!!

    1. Questions like that are tough to answer, Shawn. Habituated animals are always easier to photograph, whether they are owls in Minnesota or wolves in Yellowstone. And yes, it takes some of the wild out of them for me. But the alternative is to try finding critters that have not had their behavior altered by humans, and I don’t believe that’s possible in areas with a human population intermixed with critters.

      Unless the animal is completely unaware of your presence you are in fact changing it’s behavior in some way. (Think “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” for animals.) Try as I might to disappear through the use of camouflage, blinds, scent control, etc., I’m pretty sure the critters I photograph usually know something is up. (See my entry here last June on the fox kit.) All I can do is try to minimize my impact on the scene, and not using bait is one tactic I personally use.

      As you can probably tell, I struggle with these issues a lot, and I have yet to come up with satisfactory answers for every unfolding scenario.

  13. I think the point re: baiting is mute. With today’s modern equipment (cameras/lenses) and patience, more than acceptable photographs of any raptor are possible without the need to draw them in so close. I need only look at photographs where the bird was some safe distance away to be totally satisfied. Add to that that there must be millions of up-close photos of raptors, taken at every conceivable angle, already availablein the public domain, do we really need to add more? The human ego seems to be getting in the way of the birds here.

    1. I agree with your last point (not that baiting is a moot point). An owl sitting in a tree, or on a fence post, is not good enough for these people. No, their flight shots are more important than what the owl is doing right then. To me baiting is about manipulation and exploitation, both of the owl and the mouse, and should not be considered nature photography any more than photographing captive animals is considered nature photography.

      As a result, I think the number of owl photographs flooding the internet has just about reached its saturation point. With this year’s Snowy Owl irruption I no longer want to see any Snowy Owl photographs in my Facebook feed, I don’t even want to take any. You would think the sheer number of owl photographs being posted on the internet these days would cause them to become devalued – this makes me sad for the real nature photographers, the ones who take time to learn their subjects and hone their craft rather than taking the lazy way.

  14. Thank you for your thoughtful article. It was honest and refreshing. One thing not mentioned is that when you feed backyard birds you also attract Raptors such as Cooper’s hawks which then prey daily on the songbirds. There is quite a bit if hypocrisy where this entire subject is concerned and many turn a blind eye where it is convenient for them.

    1. Yes, Marina, I neglected to mention the raptor attraction but that is a real issue as well. Around here, Sharpshins and Coopers love feeding stations almost as much as the songbirds.

  15. I notice not one jot of concern for the mice. As if they were inert, like a piece of corn, having less potential than a sunflower seed, of even less concern than a piece of litter.

    It should not surprise me (in fact I’m fully expecting all sorts of cynical “LOL! You nutbar! LOL! Go hurt yourself!” responses whether online or off) that people have so little concern, but the fact is, we have NO excuse to be so ignorant. We know a lot more about mice than we do about owls and even of men; we know their genome, their ecology (of various species), their psychology, their ethology, even that they too sing to their mates and babies. We have them to thank for ALL of our medical advances. We have them to thank for ALL of our chemical warfare. We have them to thank for MOST of our product safety. Yet they are not worth thanking, for they are mere tools, and deserving ones at that. They are considered pure vermin, of so little ethical consideration that those that buy them at *pet* stores are of many greater orders of magnitude buying them to do them abject harm without a second thought, than to ever intentionally treat them as a worthy pet. You just might check into your own blog title and realize that we have them to thank, as well, for our perhaps biggest literary pathos to our own human condition: The best laid plans of mice and men Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain…

    The baiting of owls is wrong for the owls, but it is more wrong for the men, for how they relate to the mouse and to their place in the world.

    If you cannot put yourself in the ethical position that you are, by the grace of God or by luck or by the infinite power of your own logic, human, but that you and your consciousness could just as easily have been born in the body of a mouse, you lack a moral imagination. This lack of conscience is what allows us to play God or Emperor for our own amusement with whomever we can subdue – in this case, both mice and owls. To tolerate this because meh, to each his own, is relativism – and mice being the first casualty, who will be the last?

    If a person lacks a moral imagination, their contribution to any policy debate is pretty much just nest-feathering for themselves, and most others would therefore have no interest in their membership stake. This is the very path by which money and apathy become the arbiters of policy, and not vision, values, and facts.

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