Sunday, February 02, 2014

Wisconsin Snowy Owl captured by Falconer

Did you know that it's perfectly legal for a falconer to remove a first-year Snowy Owl from the wild and train it for hunting? I didn't. But it happened in Wisconsin on January 30th near Freedom. The story broke on a wildlife rehabber's Facebook page, but was eventually deleted. The topic was posted in Wisconsin Birding on Facebook, but removed by the moderators because of mean-spirited comments. Even the falconer who took the Freedom snowy removed the post (which included a photograph of the owl) from his personal Facebook page.

So, what about the law?

From Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Chapter NR 18 FALCONRY:

NR 18.01 (10) "Raptor" means a live, migratory bird of the Orders Accipitriformes, Falconiformes, or Strigiformes, including the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).

NR 18.02 (1) The raptors covered by this chapter include those raptors species whose range extends into any part of Mexico, the United States, or Canada.

NR 18.12 (7) Except as otherwise authorized, a permittee may not take from the wild or possess any raptor taken from the wild if the raptor is over one year old when taken. This subsection does not apply to the American kestrel or great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).

You can read all of the regulations here.

To be sure, this is an emotional and controversial subject for birders, but not so much for falconers. I recently interviewed Bryant Tarr, a falconer from Lyndon Station who is also the Curator of Birds at the International Crane Foundation. Tarr admitted that owls don't make particularly good birds for falconry, but it is still legal. And you cannot deny their personal passion for their activity. "It is the way I personally choose to interact with and enjoy nature. It is life affirming and very fulfilling for me" Tarr said.

I'll bet the overwhelming majority of birders in Wisconsin are unaware that just last summer the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources adopted the latest falconry regulations that shifted from joint Federal and State regulations to just State. Leading up to this, for several years there were ample opportunities for public input. Where were the birders?

With eBird, listservs, and bird reporting groups on social media, it's relatively easy for a falconer to find the location of a Snowy Owl or other raptor. It certainly puts into question how much information birders ought to divulge before posting a report. One thing I do is submit my owl sighting to eBird several weeks after the actual observation, but I only do this for northern irruptive species. Recently, the Wisconsin Birding Facebook page restricted access to posts for members only (for other reasons), nevertheless there are a few falconers there.

Falconry and birding shouldn't necessarily be seen as mutually exclusive pastimes. Even Tim Gallagher, editor-in-chief of the Cornell of Laboratory of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine, is an avid falconer. You'll find falconers who are birders and birders who are not falconers on the same side of bird conservation issues.  But the problem isn't falconers, birders, listservs, or Facebook groups; the problem – if there is one – is with the law that makes it legal to remove an owl from the wild. To that end, there is a petition at that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

I have to admit I was rather shocked to learn that owls are fair game to falconers, but after discussing the issue with a couple of falconers, I'm not ready to say the law needs to be changed. Tarr said, "Very few owls are currently flown nationwide. None that I know of in Wisconsin." He added, "Taking a bird for falconry is certainly for self-interest and is not essential for the survival of that individual, although statistically speaking it benefits more than half of them that would likely perish their first winter anyway."

Related link: Falconry - Bloodsport or Alternative form of birding?


  1. Snowy owls are in no way an endangered or even vulnerable. The legal and regulated capture of a few immature birds for a time honored sporting purpose will in no way hurt the population and shouldn't be judged in a blanket statement like this. This coming from an avid birder and sportsman. Just my 2 cents.

  2. Hi Josh,

    Blanket statement? I thought I was pretty fair to both sides. I sent this to Bryant Tarr before publishing and he thought it was balanced and accurate.

    Ya can't please everyone!


  3. Hello Mike,

    Interesting article, all the falconers I have spoken to over the years (this is many as I wished at one point to take it up as an apprenticeship in the UK) all remark on how lousy falconry birds they make but are great for shows who doesn't want to see a Snowy Owl right? Owls are difficult to train anyway so getting them as youngsters makes this somewhat easier essentially you suspend them in perpetual puberty. In fact in the Netherlands the only birds you can hunt with legally are, Peregrine falcon, Northern Goshawk and Kestrel's.
    The "Ebird" equivalent that I use hear in Holland gives you the option to embargo any and or all your observations for the length of time you choose, this is really useful for the kind of situation you raised in this article. To add to this the site that I use is a government funded and moderated website so the mod's are bound by the laws attributing to the various species that are listed i.e. breeding birds or more static high-risk species like native plants. Perhaps Ebird could work on an "embargo" button also making the information pertaining to the more sensitive species available only for "official" use rather than people who may benefit more directly on a personal level.

  4. ebird/listserv is how the Gyrfalcons get caught in South Dakota. i was there a couple years ago and there were three falconers attempting to catch one (two were successful that I know of). They had their permits and such. The one fellow I spoke with said he found out through the listserv when I asked how he knew where the bird was located. I really don't see the purpose of an owl other than the wow factor. But it seems as though most falconers keep the bird for 1-2 seasons. Just curious how they fare when released back to the wild.

  5. I heard this story at the WFA 2014 meet