Thursday, January 22, 2009
Northern Hawk Owl - not baited!
There has been a lot of discussion recently on birding listservs and forums regarding the baiting of wild owls with rodents by photographers. The burning question typically arising out of these discussions is whether or not baiting owls constitutes unethical behavior on behalf of the photographer toward nature. A hasty rationalization is made that since it's perfectly acceptable to put birdseed out for songbirds, then so it must be when feeding mice to owl; its exactly the same thing, so the argument goes.
A birder I know remarked that luring a chickadee to a bird feeder seems inherently different versus baiting a much larger avian predator. I'm inclined to agree. Using a mammalian analogy, there does seem to be a difference between attracting gray squirrels to my backyard with peanuts versus luring wolves in with fresh meat. The act of baiting may render a similar desired effect - an opportunity to experience or record a wild critter – but what of potential consequences? Is it a big deal if gray squirrels begin to habituate around my yard? Not so much. Wolves? Will owls habituate to people because they're being fed?
In the field, I seldom think of myself as a part of nature. Strolling along a prairie or forest trail, I sense that I'm an intruder - an encroachment and imposition on their domain. Upon detecting my presence, most wild things quickly move away. For me, the whole point of nature photography is to capture something that's happening as if you could have no effect on nature. To my way of thinking, this is what makes it super challenging as well as rewarding. While photographers who use live bait to attract the attention of an owl obtain some of the finest images I've ever seen, there seems to be something behind this method that philosophically despoils their photographs. Could I be proud of such a shot? I'm not so sure.
As an experienced bird photographer, I can't help but imagine the effort necessary to capture similar quality owl flight shots without luring the bird toward the camera lens. Such spectacular images conjure up guru-like nature photographers who honor and respect the intense challenges before them. But that's not what happens; a mouse is tossed onto a snow bank and awaits certain death - the paparazzi moment is assured. Even using the word "lure" implies something less than passive nature photography more akin to sport. When I photograph birds at my feeders, the reward quotient feels reduced by that particular circumstance. Whatever method employed, be it baiting, playing birdsong recordings, clearing perches, installing perches, etc., there's something altogether artificial in play and the art ceases being veritable nature photography. The fact that there are so many splendid owl images output during these irruptions demonstrates beyond doubt that anybody can do what they do.
© 2009 Mike McDowell