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.

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.


Baiting Northern hawk owls with domestic mice at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.