The owl swivels its head, fixing its unblinking yellow eyes on the tiny, wriggling form in the snow below it. With a quick flap of its powerful wings, it launches itself off the fence post, framed by the great expanse of its wingspan before it snatches the rodent and resettles on a nearby post to devour it. It’s a rugged, natural scene—save for one element: the photographer right beside the fence, who tossed out that mouse as bait to capture the perfect shot of the owl in action.
Every year around this time, snowy owls begin arriving in Alberta and other areas throughout the southern portion of Canada after completing a long migration from the Arctic. Their annual appearance causes a flurry of excitement amongst birders and wildlife photographers alike—and just like clockwork, shortly after pictures of these birds start filling the feeds of various online forums, the backlash begins.
“Everyone kind of jumped on me … I was more just kind of offended how they just attack everyone and say that every picture is from baiting,” Mitchell Kranz says. “I didn’t post in any of the forums for a while, because every picture I would post after that, even without [baiting], everyone was kind of like, “Oh, he cheated to get these.'”
Kranz is an amateur photographer living in Calgary, who developed a passion for wildlife photography about five years ago. He has only baited birds once before, in 2013: he happened to have some live mice in his car (for his pet snake) while he was out searching for snowy owls to photograph. He explains that he actually hadn’t heard about baiting before, but assumed that an owl would willingly hunt a feeder mouse as readily as a wild one. That assumption proved correct with a snowy owl that he found in the middle of a farmer’s field, and the end result was several great close-ups of the bird (including the ones featured with this story). After he shared those photos online, however, he quickly discovered that not only was this practice quite common in the bird-photography world, it’s also quite controversial.
One of the places in which Kranz shared his photos was the Alberta Birds group on Facebook, a very active group with well over 4000 members and a daily feed of new photos of bird sightings taken throughout the province. The group was started in 2012 by Charlotte Wasylik, an amateur birder and photographer, after she noticed a lack of online presence for Alberta’s birding community. She verifies that the debate around raptor (birds of prey) baiting crops up every year around this time, both in her group and across other birding forums.
“I try to moderate it as best I can; this is the first time I’ve actually closed the commenting,” she says over the phone from her home in Vermilion, referring to a recent comment thread in the Alberta Birds group. “There are some rare times that I do delete comments, but it’s never that much. It’s pretty well able to moderate [itself], but sometimes it does get a little heated.”
“It’s a conversation that I think we should have, because it opens everyone’s eyes to what baiting is and how some people go about doing it,” she adds.
Admittedly, the practice is something that most people, outside the fairly small intersection of wildlife enthusiasts and photography circles, aren’t aware of. The arguments against baiting birds, specifically raptors, are similar to those made against feeding other predatory animals: warnings against habituating the birds to human contact, which could make them dependent on humans for food and unable to forage for themselves, and/or result in their overfeeding or the spread of disease from the bait. There’s also the argument that baiting a bird into the perfect photograph is “cheating”—levied by purists who believe in capturing nature in its most untouched state possible.
Others argue that baiting raptors for photography is no different than taking pictures of songbirds at a feeder.
“Philosophically, I see little difference between feeding a mouse to an owl and throwing peanuts out for blue jays or filling my bird feeder for the chickadees,” writes Gordon Court in an email. “It is seen the same way in the law. Feeding wildlife is not illegal in Alberta, unless specifically deemed unlawful in places like national and provincial parks.”
Court is a provincial wildlife status biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Policy Division of Alberta Environment and Parks, and a self-described “raptor nut” since he was three years old. He has been baiting and capturing northern owls for about 20 years as part of permitted research activities, and he has extensively debated the pros and cons of feeding wildlife with the Fish and Wildlife enforcement staff. Anytime wildlife is fed, or has their behaviour otherwise altered by humans, he explains, it warrants careful consideration. Where raptors—and especially owls—are concerned, however, he notes that the potential drawbacks from baiting are actually quite few.
“The greatest potential downside to feeding/baiting that I can think of for the individual animal is that it becomes very tame,” Court writes. “It goes without saying that this can be bad news in areas where the more dim-witted among us will destroy owls at any opportunity.”
But such tame owls are actually quite rare: baiting raptors is a very uncommon practice, despite what one might be led to believe from online comments in birding communities, and Court has only known of a handful of such birds over the past 20 years. Much of this has to do with the expense it would take to create such an animal, given the cost of feeder mice at pet stores (averaging $1 to $3 each).
Indeed, the few raptors that are baited by enthusiastic photographers might even benefit from the treatment, Court notes.
“Most of the birds that can be ‘trained’ in this way are unusually bold (and trainable) as a result of poor body condition (usually juvenile birds),” Court writes. “For most raptors, about half of all individuals born in any year will die in their first winter, mostly by starvation. … There is probably an upside to supplemental feeding for the individual owl by feeding/baiting. Some undoubtedly avoid starvation.”
Court also explains that overfeeding raptors is virtually impossible: “Once an individual has taken advantage of the food source, it will do you the honour of ignoring you and your mice completely,” he writes.
Further, Court does not believe that the occasional feeding from a human will compromise a raptor’s ability to forage afterwards, since they will encounter several instances of superabundant and easily captured prey during their lifetime anyway, during the high end of rodent cycles.
Care must be given not to unduly stress any wildlife, especially raptors that might already be food-stressed during the cold season and/or after a long migration—and the mere presence of a human can have an impact, whether they are actively baiting or not.
“Photographers who try to get close to foraging birds routinely will bump them from perches, where the bird moves away from its selected foraging spot,” Court explains. “This all takes energy, so just because you are not baiting does not mean you are not having an impact on the animal.”
Take the infamous pygmy owl paparazzi, for example. In January of this year, a northern pygmy owl—the smallest owl in the world and quite a rare species—was spotted in Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary. The story was picked up by the local press and caused hundreds of people to flock to the area.
“Sometimes there’d be 100 photographers down there, all aiming at this one little owl,” Kranz explains. “Any given day for probably a month and a half there, this owl stuck around, and you could just follow the lenses and you’d be able to see where this bird was. It was literally like paparazzi.”
For this very reason, Wasylik does not permit people to post any photos of sensitive species or nesting birds to the Alberta Birds group, fearing it could cause potentially dangerous levels of human impact to those birds.
There are reports of people who will use fake mice, such as a cat toy on a string, in an attempt to lure raptors into a good photograph without having to bother with buying and transporting live rodents. Court condemns such practices as wildlife harassment and encourages Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers to issue charges or warnings if they see this technique being used by anyone not holding a banding licence. The reason is simple: such activity could prove the tipping point for a wintering raptor, if they use up their remaining energy reserves chasing a target with no food reward. When raptors are caught for the purposes of scientific banding, Court explains, the bird is offered at least one mouse to offset the “inconvenience” of handling it. Incidentally, these situations allow the opportunity for photography as well; Alberta Fish and Wildlife has used such photos in its promotional materials for years.
Regarding the issue of potential diseases spreading through wild bird populations from bait, Court notes that he has not heard of any such examples with raptors—but, interestingly, there are proven instances of this from feeding songbirds. The province is also considering legislation that would ban feeding deer, due to the potential spread of Chronic Wasting Disease—and as any rural resident with a backyard feeder can tell you, deer will readily feed from bird feeders, especially in the winter months. It’s still unclear what such legislation could mean for rural bird feeders.
Ultimately, the issue of baiting raptors is largely a matter of human ethics being applied to the animal kingdom, aside from a few very clear lines—it’s illegal to feed any animal in a provincial or national park, and you should never bait a bird near roadways or with fake prey. Consideration of the animal’s welfare must be given first priority, Court emphasizes—something that any responsible birder and wildlife photographer will already have taken to heart.
“No photograph is worth compromising the welfare of the photographic subject, so whether you like sneaking up on your subject, hiding from them in a blind, baiting them with food—use common sense,” Court writes. “Don’t compromise your subject, and respect the rights of others who may be enjoying seeing the animal at the same time.”