Michael Furtman is an outdoors writer and photographer, and wildlife photographer, living in Duluth. He objects to the increasingly widespread wintertime practice by some photographers in northern Minnesota of baiting owls. Many of the owls have flown south from Canada for the winter and can become habituated if fed, Furtman says, threatening and debasing them and the sport of birding. Furtman explains:
Q What is owl baiting, and how prevalent is it among birders?
A Owl baiting is a technique in which photographers, amateur or professional, use live mice or even fake mice to attract an owl to attack the mouse and flare. It’s a practice that has been increasing by leaps and bounds since digital cameras and social media came on the scene. Some pros have done it forever, but in limited numbers. Now there are a lot of amateurs with digital cameras, and they want to get the same photos they see online or in magazines. So some of them are baiting also.
Q Is it ethical or unethical in your view?
A I consider it highly unethical. I consider it fakery. Writing fiction and passing it of as truth is widely considered to be a lie. And I think taking a photo of an animal that you tricked into performing for you is also a lie.
Q Some photographers say it’s no different than feeding birds in your backyard and photographing them.
A Not a chance. Birds in those situations vanish if you walk out of your house. They retain all sense of self-preservation. And they don’t associate the homeowner with food.
Q How does baiting affect owls?
A It makes them, in time, absolutely helpless. Baited owls become habituated and will approach people for food. In some instances they will fly right to your feet. It’s humiliating to the animal, frankly. They begin to associate people with a food source. Not many years ago I saw a hawk owl that was being fed daily that would fly down to a road and wait to be fed if it saw a stopped car. Some snowy owls react the same way.
Q Does baiting endanger owls?
A It puts them at risk in various ways. Think about what could happen when they begin their flights back north. What if they land near an unsuspecting person, looking for food, and the person feels threatened?
Q Which owls are at risk?
A Most at risk are great grays, northern hawk owls and to some degree boreal owls. Snowy owls, too. In Minnesota we actually have a small breeding population of these, except for snowys. But the majority of these are drifting south from Canada in winter.
Q Would you agree that, by the very nature of wildlife photography, there are some gray areas, ethically? For example, many “nature” and so-called wildlife photographers take images of essentially tame animals in national parks, or in places where the animal subjects are confined.
A I would agree. Some people, for example, might scowl at the idea of photographing eagles feeding on a deer carcass that a photographer has dragged to a certain area so it attracts eagles or other wildlife. But even in that example, the photographer isn’t part of the scenario. He or she would be sitting in a blind somewhere hoping something would come to feed on the deer carcass. That’s different, in my view, from literally changing the feeding habits and natural instincts of wildlife, and to endanger it, to secure photographs.
Q People unfamiliar with modern birding might be surprised to know the impact that social media has on the sport. Some birders, for example, watch for sightings broadcast online by other people, then race to that area, often creating small traffic jams on or near private property.
A Birding has become in some instances quite competitive. Many photographers who focus on photographing birds — owls, in this instance —don’t waste their time driving around northern Minnesota, looking for owls in the wild. Instead, they troll the internet, especially birding websites, and when they see that an owl or other bird has been located, if the location is given — and it often is — they race to that site. For this reason, a lot of ethical birders I know have sworn off posting. Not out of selfishness, but out of concern. Once the word is out about the location of a bird, the site becomes a circus.
Q How exactly are mice placed as bait to attract owls?
A Different ways. Sometimes a baiting photographer will stay with the same owl for hours and hours, throwing mice on the snow. Sometimes these photographers will put up artificial perches, and in some cases the animal almost becomes a performer. It’s studio photography, not wildlife photography. As a photographer, it’s not challenging. It’s not authentic. Great gray owls are plunge hunters. They don’t fly in toward prey with their talons down. Almost all photos you see like that are fake. But they are passed off as real. Finally, a lot of these mice are called feeder mice, and some are infected with salmonella, which wild owls have no resistance to.
Q Has there been an effort to make owl baiting illegal?
A There was a bill in the Legislature in 2015 that would have done that. But it didn’t pass.