ALL ABOUT OWL BAITING
by Michael Furtman
 



 

What Is Owl Baiting?

Owl baiting is a technique practiced by some photographers to get owls to perform for the camera. Using live mice, or sometimes a toy mouse manipulated with a fishing rod, photographers lure the bird to attack in order to produce dramatic, but fake, photos. It is considered unethical by many fellow photographers, and is of great concern to birders and natural resource managers. It is sometimes euphemistically called "feeding" by baiters to make it sound less harmful.


Why Does Baiting Work?

Owls, particularly "northern" owls such as the Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk Owl, and Boreal, frequently hunt during the daytime, which makes photography possible. They sometimes move south from their home range, which brings them into contact with humans for the first time in their lives. When large numbers move south, ornithologists call these events "irruptions." Baiters troll the interent, searching birding reports for locations of these owls. Unable or unwilling to do the work themselves of locating owls, the depend upon the naive to post these locations, even befriending them on social media. Once a location is known, they load up their mice and fellow baiters, and descend upon these hapless owls. For this reason, many legitimate wildlife photographers, as well as concerned birders and birding guides, no longer post locations.

These trusting birds are tolerant of people, and when presented with a rodent (which is their primary prey) they are unable to refuse it.

The best way to gain a sense their vulnerability is to watch the video below of two Wisconsin baiters teasing a Great Gray Owl.

  

Is It Harmful To The Owl?

The risks to the owl takes several forms. One concern is that pet shop mice frequently carry the salmonella bacteria, and have actually been the focus of alerts and recalls by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control. No studies have been done on the impact of this disease on owls, but it is known that salmonella causes severe diarrhea in infected animals, and weakens their resistance to other diseases. There is no good reason to subject these owls to possible illness and death simply for the sake of a photograph. Some photographers have begun raising "wild" mice for their own use or to sell to other photographers, claiming these mice from wild stock are "better for the owl." But a small percentage (about 1-2%) of wild mice carry this bacteria as well. When raised in confinement, the bacteria can be passed quickly through feces to the other mice, meaning that most or all of  the "wild" mice raised by photographers could also be infected with salmonella. In the wild, the odds are low of an owl eating a infected wild mouse. When fed by photographers, the probability of infection increases.



Another concern is that baiting is almost always done along roadways, increasing the risk of bird/vehicle collisions, which is the largest cause of death of these owls when they move south. When they are focused on prey, dangers are tuned out, which leads to these collisions. They tend to hunt along roadways anyway because these areas are cleared back away from the shoulder. Nothing can be done about this tendency, but increasing their odds of being struck by a vehicle is simply wrong.

When baited, these owls become quickly habituated to humans. They see people as a source of food, little different than your dog sees you as a source of food. If the owl only encountered one person feeding it once, this would not occur, but the impacts are cumulative. Some owls are baited on a near daily basis once their location has been discovered and shared among baiters or posted to social media. They actually WILL APPROACH A VEHICLE when they see it stop. Some will even fly toward people and land mere feet away. Those who offer "owl photogrpahy workshops" are the worst habituators. In order to make sure they have owls available for their clients, they pay individuals to habituate these birds well in advance of their arrival.


Habituation puts the owl at further risk. Not all people have good intentions toward wildlife. Others might see such a large, sharply taloned bird approaching them as a threat. The old adage "a fed predator is a dead predator" holds true here. No good can come from habituating an owl to see humans as a food source.

To see how habituated these owls become after being repeatedly baited, please view this video:

 

Finally, some photographers have little concern about the physical risks to the owl. They have been known to tease the owl with lures for hours in order to photograph from various angles or move it to different perching sites, some of which the photographers artificially place in order to enhance their photo. Previously, most baited owl shots showed the bird flying straight toward the camera, often with talons down, ready to pounce. Since the public has begun to question the legitimacy of such images, some baiters have switched to jerking the mouse to the side at the last moment, or having someone step forward and wave their arms, causing the bird to flare sideways. This is the "new" fake photo proferred by these charlatans. In doing so, they cause the owl to expend needless energy and increases stress. Winter is already a stressful time of year for all northern animals, and additional stress is cause for concern. They will even place mice on hard surfaces such as the roof of a vehicle, on a tripod, or even on the camera itself. If the owl strikes these hard surfaces, it could injure a foot or break talons, either of which could cause difficulties when hunting, decreasing its odds of survival. One amateur photographer from Minnesota actually posted a YouTube video of a Snowy Owl hitting his video camera on which he had placed a mouse, sending the camera tumbling, showing the complete disregard for the subject. Although he has since removed the video, many have seen it and can corroborate the authenticity of this claim.

 

But These Owls Are Starving -- Baiting Them Actually Does Good!

No. No it doesn't. In addition to the risks outlined above, the myth that these owls are starving and need human intervention has been disproven. Several recently published papers by owl researchers who capture, examine, and apply leg bands, or through examination of owls that have died from vehicle collisions, have shown that virtually all at or near their normal winter weight (which is typically below their weight during less stressful seasons). Some who move south find the hunting so profitable that they are actually technically obese.

Here are a few references regarding the "starving owl" myth from these reputable sources:

http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/no-need-to-feed-snowy-owls/|

http://www.audubon.org/news/why-you-shouldnt-feed-or-bait-owls

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/snowy-owls-arent-starving-two-canadian-farmers-help-bust-a-pervasive-myth/

There are other studies as well, but one in particular is appropriate for the Great Gray Owl. During the winter of 2004-5, large numbers of this species moved south, making it the largest "irruption" in recorded history. A large number of these owls were captured and banded by researchers, and still many more were found dead, recovered, and examined. The Ontario Field Ornithologists published a complete report on the findings in their excellent publication "Ontario Birds." The full report The Ontario Great Gray Owl Irruption of 2004-2005: Mortality, Sex, Molt and Age by authors Mark K. Peck and Glenn B. Murphy can be downloaded at: https://sora.unm.edu/node/137021

For those not interested in the full text, the appropriate part to this discussion is that, of the 414 found dead, only nine died of starvation. The majority were killed in vehicle strikes. A large sampling of both live and dead owls were examined for body fat to determine how healthy these birds were at the time of examination or death. The report states that:

"Most owls were determined to be healthy, with considerable fat deposits at the time of banding/death. Of the 55 female owls checked, three were described as having light fat, four had moderate fat and 42 were described as having heavy or extremely heavy fat. The remaining six birds had no fat, and all were reported to have died of starvation. A similar pattern was found in male owls. Twenty-one birds were described as having heavy fat, one had moderate fat, three had light fat and one bird had no fat."

It is important to remember that winter is a stressful time for many species of wildlife, and that in every species, some fail to survive winter's rigors. This is true for ruffed grouse, snowshoe hares, wolves, deer or any other species that does not migrate out of the cold regions. It is also true that this has been occurring for as long as these species have been around. It is simply called natural selection, and while no one likes to see any animal starve, it is the way through which nature perfects the species by eliminating the unfit.

Owls do not need to be fed, and their species do not benefit by it. 

 

Baiting Owls Is No Different Than Feeding Birds In Your Back Yard

This common refrain from baiters is far from true. The birds that visit your backyard feeders do not associate YOU as the source of food, but instead associate the LOCATION as a good place to feed. When you go outside to fill the feeders, the birds flee -- they have retained their sense of self-preservation. But when an owl is presented with a mouse, it quickly associates people as the source of food, and rather than flee, it approaches, often to within inches of the baiter. It has lost its sense of self-preservation, helpless to the whims of the baiter.

 

Baiting Impacts People, Too

 When an owl is fed by photographers, it ceases to hunt naturally. Anyone who has eaten a large meal can appreciate the fact that the last thing you are going to do is have another dinner. Satiated owls will sit for hours, and if the baiters give it more than it can eat, it will stash the mice for later consumption. This means that any birder or photographer that comes along later that day, or even days later, will encounter a bird that remains inactive because it has no need to hunt. While still fun to see or photograph, when not fed, these owls can and do hunt by day, often giving the patient birder or photographer the thrill of a lifetime -- watching a wild predator hunt and capture its prey. Baiters deny all others this incredible experience, an experience that for some who have travelled great distances, would be a once in a lifetime event. In addition, because the practice of baiting has become widespread, it is detested by many photographers and birders. Encountering baiters has become far more common, and watching them manipulate an owl has ruined many an otherwise pleasant outing for those who are disturbed by this behavior. Finally, baiters think nothing of monopolizing an owl for hours, surrounding it in groups. During that period, no one else can photograph or enjoy the experience. Owl photography workshops have proliferated, especially in Canada. In order to insure that the owls are available when the workshop takes place, the workshop organizers hire people to begin baiting the owls weeks in advance. By time the workshop occurs, the owls are completely habituated to humans. Most of these workshops take place away from prying eyes, and by using bait, the birds are lured to private lands where only the workshop participants have access. Not only are these operators habituating these birds to an incredible degree, they are denying the public the opportunity to view or photograph the owls.

 

If you would like to read a well written piece on how encountering baiters impacts those who do not bait, follow this link: The Agony and The Ecstasy of Owl Photography: Owl Baiting.

 

Baiting Presents An Inaccurate Depiction Of Owl Behavior

The fact is that the photographs taken over bait do not represent the way these owls hunt. First, their prey rarely appears above the snow, but instead tunnel beneath it. This is the very reason owls have their exceptional hearing. They generally hunt from a low perch and listen for prey beneath the snow. They then fly over the location, and use their dish shaped face to direct sound to their ears. At the last second they plunge onto their prey. Some, like the Great Gray and Boreal Owl, actually fall "face first" and only pivot at the last second to punch through the snow with their legs. Snowy and Hawk Owls do tend to "scoop" prey from just beneath the surface of the snow in a fashion somewhat similar to the fake photos of owls grabbing exposed mice. But in all cases, the photos taken over bait are a false depiction of actual hunting techniques. Consequently, they give false information. These photographers are essentially telling a lie, and are conning the public who view them. Everyone would consider an author a liar who passed a work of fiction off as fact. These photos are no different.

 

So Why Then Do People Bait?

The two main motivations are praise and money. Many baiters are amateur photographers that want to have a dramatic photo to post to social media so that they can revel in the "wow" comments. None admit that the photo was taken over bait. Some photographers hope to sell these images to magazines, although a growing number of publications are beginning to question the photographer if the photo was taken with the use of bait. There is also a growing number of "pro" photographers who offer owl workshops. These workshops use owls that have been conditioned in advance by paid baiters, often landowners, prior to the arrival of the "workshop" participants. This is a cash cow for the workshop leaders, who charge anywhere from $1500 to $3500 per person per workshop. There are anywhere from 5 to 10 participants per workshop, and some offer a half dozen of these outings per winter. It is nothing more than commercialization of public wildlife at the expense of the owl's well being. It also causes baiting to proliferate, since the workshop participants often go home and teach their friends this method.

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LET'S BE CLEAR -- NO ONE NEEDS THESE PHOTOS. NOT PROFESSIONALS, NOT HOBBYISTS. THEY ARE TAKEN FOR FUN AND PROFIT, AND ARE SIMPLY SELFISH.

David Hemmings and Chris Dodds are two of the better known owl workshop leaders. Click on their names to go to their websites to view their prices and offerings. As is the case with many unethical practices, a lust for money or fame are key motivations.

Since calling these professional baiters out (they can hardly be called professional wildlife photographers) some have reacted with threats. Here's the exchange from David Hemmings, threatening to sue me:



      

 

What Can Be Done About It?

Currently owl baiting is legal in most locations. If it occurs in a protected place, like a national park or wildlife refuge, wildlife harassment laws might be applied. But most baiting occurs where there is little legal protection for the owls. A few municipalities in Canada, where baiting has become an epidemic, have passed local ordinances prohibiting the practice, but there are no widespread protections. Even the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not offer a tool to end owl baiting.

In 2014, Minnesota attempted to legislate a ban, and the measure reached the House floor. Baiters, unfortunately, reached two key politicians, and it was stripped from the MN Department of Natural Resources legislation at the last moment. Efforts to pass the ban the following year were killed in committee.

Many photographers, birders, and other nature lovers are taking it upon themselves to educate the public on baiting, and to recognize photographs that are shot over bait, in an effort to remove the "wow" reward for those who post these photos to social media. Other efforts include informing the public what these owl workshops really do. Virtually all of these workshops depend upon baiting, yet the term "bait" appears nowhere in the advertising literature.

Efforts have been successful in educating magazine editors about owl baiting, and how to recognize photos that were created over bait. For instance, National Wildlife magazine, and Audubon magazine and its contests, are now prohibiting owl photographs taken over bait.

 

What Can You Do?

If you find this practice unethical, if you don't like being lied to by a photograph, if you are concerned about the health of these owls, there are a few things you can do. When viewing images online, watch for details that might indicate the owl was baited. As described above, owls rarely take prey from the surface of the snow. They also rarely fly directly at the camera. If the image is "too perfect" -- if the lighting is perfect, the owl is approaching the camera, if it is "talons down" on the surface of the snow, if it is flaring to one side with wings wide, chances are good that it was shot over bait. If the mouse is visible, pay attention to its size and color. Wild mice in North America are small and brown, with white underbellies. Voles are similar, but larger (almost as large as hamster). Wild mice are never white, black, pied, or calico. They do not have long tails.

If you still have questions before "liking" an image on Facebook or other social media, just ask the photographer if the image was taken over bait. Those who don't bait will be proud to answer. Those who do bait probably won't respond -- or they may lie. But at least you've made the attempt. If you see photographs in print, drop the editor an email, and send them to this page for a primer on baiting.

Some locales are searching for ways to address this through law. If you hear of such an effort in your state, province or locality, support it.

 

Additional Resources

If the owl photo is fake, the viewer is being conned - Jim Williams, "Wingnut" birding column, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Outdoors photographer blasts practice of luring owls with bait -- Dennis Anderson, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Baiting Owls - The Birding Project, Christian Hagenlocher

Why You Shouldn't Feed or Bait Owls - National Audubon Society

Great Gray Owls in Ottawa: Baiting and Abetting

Of Mice and Owls - Keith Crowley, Lodgetrail Media

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Owl Photography: Owl Baiting.


Shouting matches, crude language invade world of bucolic harmony: Ottawa’s birding community - National Post

No Baiters Allowed -- Raymond Barlow

Owl Baiting radio broadcast, CBC radio, March 1, 2017

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017, ESPN Twin Cities; baiting conversation with Dennis Anderson on
The Great Outdoors
(clicking on the above link starts a download of the podcast - baiting segment starts at 31:06)