The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls

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The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls
Northern saw-whet owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Owls tend to be secretive. While there are a few American species that enjoy the daylight hours, most are nocturnal and spend their days behind thick greenery or uncannily blending into the bark of the trees they nestle against. Once they’ve found a secure place to snooze, they are likely to return to that spot daily, but even if you find evidence of their presence — scat and regurgitated pellets — good luck seeing the clandestine culprits.

I’m a seasoned birder with a particular interest in owls, and on my ventures to find them, even when I have specific information on where they’ve been seen just minutes before, I’ve failed to find them more often than not. Such elusiveness makes “owling” one of the great birding challenges. Being the first to find a particular owl is regarded by some as a badge of distinction, and those who find them regularly are viewed with awe-struck reverence.

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The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls
Eastern screech owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

While birders prize owls, the ethical ones also abet the species’ secretive natures with their own code of silence, an owl “omertà.” Many people will not share the specifics of an owl’s location or will do so only in whispers. A typical owl dislikes disruption and will find a new roost if too many people kick up a racket near its daybed. This forces the bird to expend valuable energy — and of course throws off its sleep pattern.

But I worry that in our effort to protect these elusive and private birds, we birders are falling short of another responsibility: to promote the cause of wildlife conservation by letting others in on our secrets so they, too, can see these magnificent predators and celebrate them.

On listservs and bird reporting sites, users often note an owl location only well after the fact or provide a general location (Springfield Park) rather than a detailed one (halfway up the sycamore east of the bike trail near the footbridge). Even birders you know might get testy if you ask for details. When you request such information, you do so sheepishly, acknowledging your impropriety while promising discretion. Being protective of owl sightings has caused more than one heated argument; ask too many times and you may be shunned.

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The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls
Barred owl, Maryland Credit Noah Comet

Some Facebook birding groups are known for brutal takedowns and highhanded admonitions. A thread in 2013 culminated in an impassioned plea from a respected naturalist who urged her readers to “seriously limit” their time at an owl spot that had been irresponsibly shared and to “consider not returning.”

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That many birders are tight-lipped is a good thing, of course, because the cost of incaution can be disappointment or tragedy. When I lived in Ohio there was a hot spot nearby that was reliable for wintering long-eared owls, a species that many birders might travel across state lines to see. Over time the location, details and all, became widely known; sure enough, the owls stopped coming.

There are stories about other owls being loved to death — fleeing spotting scopes and telephoto lenses only to be hit by cars — or of landowners, once tolerant of owlers on their properties, who revoked access for all because of an unprincipled few.

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The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls
Northern pygmy owl, British Columbia. Credit Noah Comet

Fortunately, every region seems to have an ambassador owl or two — an individual that seems indifferent to human attentions. I remember one that chose a nesting site right next to a busy playground and would snooze the day away in the open with no regard for the screaming toddlers, slamming car doors or barking dogs below. These birds are often their viewers’ first owls and are for many the sightings that get them hooked on birding.

And that’s arguably a downside to birders’ protective secrecy: Owls might be rivaled only by bald eagles as ornithological recruiting agents, inspiring young and old to take an interest, to care about wildlife and to want to share with others. It’s no accident that many nature centers have live birds of prey, including owls, on display for visitors and that many birding organizations sponsor evening “owl prowls.” But as awesome as it is to see an owl up close in captivity or hear one hooting in the distant dark, there’s nothing like seeing one in the wild on its own terms.

It’s snowy owl season in the upper reaches of the United States. Though not entirely dependable, this species is a not-uncommon winter visitor from the Arctic, and during years of sudden upsurges in migration, these owls can show up in significant numbers, on piers and coastal dunes, in stubble fields — even at urban parks and airports.

Because they often rest on the ground and hunt by day (after all, it never gets dark for much of their time up north), they can be conspicuous, much to the delight of birders and amateur photographers. For the same reason, they seem to enjoy a less protected status from birders than their nocturnal kin. With a snowy owl, full location details are even likely to end up in a feel-good segment on the local newscast. (We may have Harry Potter to thank for that.)

All of this points to a basic wildlife watcher’s conundrum: When you know the location of a charismatic but sensitive species, do you keep that information to yourself (or to a small network of trusted peers), or do you broadcast it far and wide? The first option reeks of a kind of proprietary elitism, but it is of immediate benefit to the animal. The second option seems recklessly harmful to the animal, but if it promotes the hobby and raises awareness, then it might lead to far greater long-term benefits to conservation.

Though there are usually those easy-to-see ambassador owls around, many birders insist on keeping mum about those locations, too; perhaps, for the greater good, they shouldn’t. And here’s a more controversial thing to say: Perhaps when we find an owl that is not especially wary, outside of nesting season and in a publicly accessible place, we ought to freely share that information, especially with those uninitiated to birding. If you have the time, set up a scope and invite passers-by to take a look, and if you have school-age children, see whether a field trip is possible.

Some of my birding friends will balk at this suggestion, and there was a time when I would have been skeptical, too. But in an era of deregulation, of species being removed from the Endangered Species Act and of stripped-away land protections, conservationists may need to try harder than ever to get fellow citizens to care about wildlife. It’s awfully hard to care about what you can’t see.

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