Ethical Owl Watching

Wednesday, November 3, 2021
It's that time of year again when owls become the focal point for many birders. Through the winter months, our number of resident owl species jumps from four to (if we're lucky) ten. The higher number of owls in the area combined with the lack of leaves on the trees, makes winter the optimal time for owl viewing. But owl watching isn't as simple as pulling over to the shoulder of the road when you spot an owl on a telephone pole or in a nearby tree - in fact, that type of situation can be very dangerous to both you and the bird. Read on to prepare yourself for ethical owl watching in the season ahead. 

Barred Owl peacefully perched in snowfall

Assess the situation before stopping to view an owl
Whether it's your first or your 91st, finding an owl is always an exciting experience. Sometimes our excitement can get in the way of our judgement and we can make some pretty big mistakes when owl watching. Often times owls are spotted on top of telephone poles, on fences, or in trees along a roadways. Before pulling over to take a peek at an owl, consider a few things: Is the owl near a high-traffic area? Could it potentially fly into traffic when approached? Is there enough space between myself and the owl to remain a respectful distance away? Will I draw the attention of others who may frighten the bird away from its perch? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it's best to just appreciate the quick glance and drive on. Similar questions should be asked when viewing an owl on a walk or at a nature reserve. If there is any foreseeable reason an owl may become stressed or harmed during an encounter, just leave it be. 

Learn to recognize owl body language
Learning owl body language should be at the top of your list before setting out in search of owls. Knowing what an owl is feeling by examining their posture and behaviours can help us decide whether our presence is causing harm to the bird, or if they are comfortable enough to allow us to bask in their glory for a few moments. Here is a brief overview of some defensive or stress-induced behvaiours vs. relaxed behaviours in owls. 

  • Defensive: elongating the body to appear taller, erect ear tufts, squinting to hide the eyes but still allowing vision (thought to help avoid detection), scanning the area for an escape, wings fanned in defensive display to help make the bird appear larger. If you notice any of these signs, it's time to either give the bird a little more space or leave the area completely. Click here to learn more about body language and behaviour in distressed owls. 

  • Relaxed: preening (grooming themselves), hunting and feeding on prey, sleeping (not to be confused with squinting mentioned above), stretching, ear tufts and eyes relaxed. If an owl is demonstrating the above behaviours in your presence, you are likely safe to enjoy each other's company for a short time. Just be mindful that if the owl begins to show signs of stress that you respect their boundaries and move on. 

Great Gray Owl preening - Photo by Brenda Foubert

Respect their boundaries and keep your distance
Owl viewing or photographing is not for those without binoculars or short lenses. To practice ethical owl watching, we must remain a great distance from the birds to allow them to perform the necessary duties required for survival such as hunting, sleeping, preening, and nesting. If we get too close, we run the risk of flushing a bird who may have been hiding from a predator, searching for prey, or resting to conserve energy. Use your knowledge of owl body language to determine a comfortable distance between yourself and the owl. Always be sure to keep talking to a minimum and maintain a slow movements when approaching an owl. 

Do not harass, chase, or use calls to lure
What is considered harassment? Generally speaking, anything that causes an animal stress, alters their behaviour in a negative way, prohibits hunting or properly caring for young, or causes physical harm, would be considered harassment. Some forms of harassment owls and other wildlife are typically subjected to include crowding, chasing, flushing (making a bird fly), playback of other animals to draw in or startle a certain species, whistling or making loud noises to get them to at the camera, shaking trees or branches, using flash on nocturnal species, baiting owls with pet store rodents, throwing rocks, snow, sticks, etc. to get the animal's attention. Chasing is one of the most common issues when it comes to birds. Chasing can cause a bird to fly out of it's territory and into another's, it can quickly lead a bird to become too exhausted to hunt or forage for food, or if near a roadway could cause the bird to fly into oncoming traffic.

Long-eared Owl sleeping

Respect the environment and property signs
As with all wildlife viewing, it's important that we keep the surrounding environment in tip-top shape. This means staying on trails or areas meant for human traffic to avoid disturbing the environment, leaving rocks/logs/fallen trees/etc where they were found, and of course, putting our trash where it belongs. Respecting property signs such as No Trespassing or Private Property signs is incredibly important from not only a legal stand point, but an ethical one. Owls often gravitate toward farm fields due to the abundance of rodents available in them, causing some onlookers to ignore property signs in order to get a better view or photo of the owl beyond the property line. This type of behaviour can quickly give the birding and photography communities a bad name, leading to some farmers and land owners to take extreme measures to stop birdwatching activity from taking place on their land. Keep in mind that just because you don't see a sign posted, doesn't mean it's not private property. Err on the side of caution and assume all property is private unless posted otherwise.

Don't share locations
I know it's hard to keep the excitement of finding an owl to yourself, but in most cases it is the most ethical choice. Sharing locations can lead to mobbing, severe harassment, habitat destruction, and even death for the sought after owl.  I can get long-winded on this subject as I've witnessed the dangers of location sharing with my own eyes, so I will leave you the link to a previous blog of mine written strictly on the topic of location sharing: Sharing Isn't Always Caring: Why Keeping Locations to Yourself is Okay.

I hope these tips for ethical owl watching offer you and the owls an enjoyable Owl-iday season!

Happy trails!
- Shayna 

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