Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On the Ethics of Photographing Owls (and other wildlife)

This post is in two parts, the first being a guest blog post by Sandra Cote and the second part by me.

THE ETHICS OF OWL PHOTOGRAPHY                                                                                            by Sandra Coté

With the rapid emergence of digital photography and online photo-hosting sites, we notice an alarming trend of harassment and abuse of owls for photography. Social media, being a small world, allows us to quickly hear of disturbing incidents outside of this group. We have even discovered a few photographers who have sought to maintain social licence by vehemently denying baiting, even going so far as to personally attack anyone who inquires, despite unequivocal evidence of their activity. Some disturbing examples are listed below (note the extent of evidence in these cases varies from photographs and videos to posts, reports, and anecdotal comments):

*     people yelling, shaking branches, throwing snow, and poking at a roosting group of Long-eared Owls with a stick, with the intention of obtaining action photos of the owls in flight
*     a Barred Owl being baited by a group of photographers who demanded others pay a fee if they wished to take photos
*     owl calls being played over a loudspeaker during the day to lure locally endangered Short-eared Owls while they were resting at a wildlife refuge
*     a Northern Hawk Owl being distracted from hunting by photographers luring it with a mouse enclosed in a glass jar
*     a Barred Owl being baited at a public park by several people who verbally assaulted the woman who attempted to intervene on behalf of the owl
*     a Great Gray Owl killed in traffic as it was being baited across a road
*     a Northern Saw-whet Owl killed by a Cooper’s Hawk when it was flushed from its protective roost during the day
*     owls roosting or nesting in trees disturbed by people climbing ladders or trimming foliage to gain better photos (leaving human scent trails and exposing vulnerable owls to predators)
*     people nailing the tails of live mice to posts (and in other cases tying them to a stick) with the intent of baiting Snowy Owls
*     a rare sighting of a Northern Hawk Owl posted on social media which resulted in about 80 requests for its location in exchange for money
*     various instances where “celebrity” owls have been killed after becoming habituated to people and vehicles

In response to such incidents and to encourage good ethics, Dr. Christian Artuso, ornithologist and conservationist by profession, has prepared a document on photographing owls which demonstrates how to obtain photos with as little disturbance as possible—something we all need to work towards.

ETHICAL PHOTOGRAPHY OF OWLS                                                                                          by Christian Artuso

As wildlife photography goes, owls make easy photographic subjects! They are creatures of habit, they sit still for long periods and they fly low and slow. In temperate climates at least, there are seasonal opportunities to photograph these primarily nocturnal birds during daylight. In today’s world of listservs and multiple sources of immediate information sharing, the burden of finding these mysterious creatures is greatly reduced—most photographers no longer find owls, they simply go to see them at known locations! At the same time, their mystique and enigma has not been lost, their elusive reputation being matched by their personality and character, perhaps especially because of their large, human-like, forward-facing eyes and rounded heads. Their enormous popularity as photographic subjects is thus hardly surprising. This offers opportunities for awareness and conservation but it also poses problems for the owls themselves. This article discusses ways to minimise disturbance so that the sheer joy of watching owls can be shared while minimising the risk of harming the beautiful subjects we love.

The best owl photos come from those who invest the time (years) to learn about their subject. Owls are not all the same and there are different ways to find different species and different places to look at different times of the year. There are seasons and occasions when certain species can be found in daylight, which simplifies the photographic challenge enormously (some species are more crepuscular or even diurnal). It pays to take your time and treat photography as a learning tool. It may be easy to rush around, following others, and then “point and shoot” but that will not distinguish your photography from the crowd. It also pays to back away whenever you can and observe from a distance. This is really the only way to see the amazing adaptations of owls in action. I will discuss various different contexts below but in each case you will find reference to three main principles:

·         Precautionary Principle (don’t risk disturbance, i.e. when in doubt, leave it out)
·         Respectful Distance
·         Respectful Duration (length of time observing or photographing an owl)

Roosting Owls
Photographing an owl on a day roost is the easiest way to photograph those species that are secretive and nocturnal but there are some key pointers to keep in mind. Above all, don’t fall victim to the biggest fallacy in birding and wildlife photography, the near omnipresent owl-not-bothered fallacy. Many birders and photographers believe a roosting owl that does not flush is undisturbed, but nothing could be further from the truth! I have seen far too many photos where the photographer commented that the owl was “tolerant” or that the owl did not notice the human observer when there was clear evidence to the contrary (to better understand what to look for, see this article on signs of stress in owls: Owls, especially small owls, do not flush for a good reason, viz. it is very dangerous for them to leave their day roost! Nocturnal owls may be fierce predators but in the daytime their nocturnal adaptations (including slow flight) make them vulnerable to other predators. Small owls like Northern Saw-whet Owl would not normally hunt during daylight hours (unless food deprived) because it puts them at enormous risk. When you find an owl roosting, make no mistake that the owl is almost invariably aware of your presence. The owl will wait until the last minute to flush and may sometimes be “frozen in indecision”, i.e. unable to move while caught in the difficult decision of fleeing (with all its inherent risks) or sitting tight and trusting camouflage (which can go horribly wrong at close quarters). Don’t mistake closed eyes for sleeping either, as owls will frequently squint to be able to watch you but hide their most visible feature (their eyes). When you photograph a roosting owl, know that the owl is constantly assessing the threat you may pose and that this is energetically costly. For this reason, it is imperative that you limit your observation time of a roosting owl to just a few minutes. If you do spot an owl at close quarters, back away very slowly to maximise the distance from where you can observe any visible signs of stress subside, such as the tall-thin posture, erect ear-tufts or squinting. As always, remember the don’t-be-a-jerk rule, i.e. no sudden or brusque movements—back up very slowly and raise your camera slowly! Your photos will be much improved by backing off and the owl will thank you for it! 

Hunting Owls
For obvious reasons, observing animal behaviour is best done from a blind (or “hide” if you prefer the British term). A great paradox is that watching wildlife impacts wildlife, necessitating care and compromise in all recreational activities. Even the most skilled of observer can almost never achieve fly-on-the-wall status (something that birdwatchers forget too readily). Using a blind, greatly helps to minimise your influence on your subject and hence to observe natural behaviour. For many people, their vehicle is their most useful portable blind and this is especially true for owl photography. Especially in winter, there are numerous opportunities to observe day hunting owls and the best way to do this is at large distances from within a vehicle (or other blind). If you can see an owl from within your vehicle, then DON’T get out! If you absolutely need to get out, stay behind the vehicle and don’t slam doors. In this way you can sit and wait long enough for an owl to make a plunge. However, even in a vehicle at a distance, you still need to be mindful of the owl’s reaction to your presence and limit the amount of time you spend with any individual animal. Even in a vehicle, it is still not acceptable to spend multiple hours with one owl. In addition to the owl itself, be aware that you impact other things in the environment. Getting out of your car and walking over towards a ditch where an owl is hunting is likely to produce a change in the activity of small mammals like voles that are sensitive to ground vibrations. You can indirectly reduce an owl’s chances of hunting success in this way. 

Urban Owls
Some of the best opportunities to photograph owls come in urban settings. Some species can benefit from proximity to humans in certain ways, as Fred Gehlbach called it, the “suburban advantage”.  In a suburban environment, people can provide something of a shield from larger predators for small owls and they provide concentrations of food (for example under rodent-attracting bird feeders) and other advantages such as the urban heat island. Even in these circumstances though, never assume that the owls will tolerate too much intrusion. Excessive pedestrian activity after dark will deter the owls and hence the same precautions apply in cities. One of the best observation opportunities comes when you can use a building as a blind.      

Celebrity Owls
Many owl locations become so publicised or shared that some owls achieve celebrity status. Fame, however, comes at a cost. In all the time and distance considerations discussed above and below, you must remember the cumulative effects of multiple observers and reduce your time of observation accordingly. In most cases, the best thing to do is to resist the urge to visit a celebrity owl and leave it to those for whom it would be a species they rarely encounter. Without wishing to go into horrendous details, I have had the deaths of celebrity owls reported to me too many times over the past decade. The crowds may not be the cause of death but they certainly do not help. For this reason, also be considerate of how you share information about owls. Sharing with a trusted friend is one thing but never post precise locations for owls in public fora and delay data entry and/or buffer locations for sensitive species when using databases such as eBird (don’t forget that eBird and listservs have become a tool for trolls and, in some parts of the world, poachers too). Always remember that with a group of people, even a small group, the risks of disturbance are exponentially greater.

Nesting Owls
The most exciting period to observe owls is when they are feeding young but photographing owls around their nest is the MOST dangerous time, when your presence can have undesired consequences. The general principle to be aware of when observing adults and their offspring is that the closer any animal is to success, the less likely that animal is to abandon its reproductive effort. For owls, in the early stages such as when setting up territory or incubating, the risk of abandonment from small disturbances is high, whereas in the later stages such as when the nestlings are capable of thermoregulating or when fledglings are getting close to achieving independence, the risk of abandonment is much lower. For this reason, I almost never photograph owls during incubation or early brooding. When I find a nest, I note the stage and plan to come back when the young are large. Even in the late stages I maximise distance and minimise time of observation just to be sure.          

When observing nesting owls always be cognisant of the following:
·         You are being watched!
This is not just by the owls themselves but also the likes of crows and ravens that are savvy at following humans to places of interest. I have seen photographers lead crows to an owl nest (or roosting family party) on several occasions and there were consequences for the owlets. Watch your back and watch the skies and make sure you are not being followed.
·         You are being sniffed!
Raccoons, ringtails, opossums, black bears and others know how to follow your scent trail and if you lead them right to a nest tree you may find the nest depredated upon your return. Be extra careful, never trample a trail, never walk directly towards a nest, always use a circular approach leading away from the nest, never leave anything behind, never use flagging tape or physical memory aides, and visit infrequently.
·         Find the right window.
The principal is simple—don’t move so much as a leaf! You can find a window through vegetation that keeps you as concealed as possible. Never cut or tie back branches, never trim or tie any vegetation, and never leave any clue of your presence. Even with fledglings moving from day to day, they are still vulnerable and there are still many risks to observing them. In their first month or so outside the nest, they are especially vulnerable. Don’t be fooled by the cute appearance of curiosity either, these youngsters are processing a lot of new information and that is a survival adaptation not to be trifled with. Redouble all efforts to keep distance and minimise time of observation. If a natural barrier presents itself, such as photographing the owl family from across a small lake or creek, then use it to minimise risks.

Flash Photography and Lights
There are numerous misconceptions about flash photography but the empirical evidence strongly suggests that owl eyes react to lights in much the same way as our eyes do.  In many contexts, especially in the tropics, owls seek out artificial lights because they attract moths and other invertebrate prey. Like us, owls must adjust to changes in the amount of light and this adjustment takes time. Strong steady-beam lights directed at an owl are more problematic than flash itself (though they may be used in concert) and create a longer lag in adjustment time for the owl. If you must use lights therefore, always use indirect lighting (bounce the flash or shine the light on foliage and underexpose any light source, compensating with high ISO). A single person with a flash may well be less disturbing than a crowd of observers; however, great care is still needed when using flash. The first thing to remember is that there is no way to be an unobtrusive observer (trying to be hidden or camouflaged doesn’t work when you are using flash!). For this reason, it is imperative to limit flash use and time even more so than in other types of photography. I would recommend no more than five minutes use of artificial lights and always indirect lighting. If an owl is hunting in moonlight or near artificial light, you may be able to turn off the flash altogether. For more discussion on flash photography and references, see: Note: the pros and cons of the use of camera traps around nests is a more complicated topic that is beyond the scope of this article. 

Call Playback
There is no doubt that song/call playback can change the behaviour of birds. Much has been written on this subject so I will not go into the details here. Playback can be used responsibly and can be an aid in finding secretive animals but it should be minimised and never used in frequently visited locales, never to a celebrity owl, never on a known nesting territory and never used repeatedly in the same owl territory regardless of season and even if visits are weeks apart. If you are using playback for a nocturnal owl survey or to determine the identification of an owl, use it only as the protocol demands and as sparingly as possible to confirm detection or identification.

Although formerly considered to be “just feeding”, there is mounting evidence of harm and mortality caused by baiting owls. Owls react very differently (in terms of habituation and consequences) to feeding as compared to songbirds. Although all forms of feeding wildlife come with risks, baiting owls and other predators is especially problematic. Much has been written on this subject as well so I would encourage further reading from reputable sources. Due to increasing awareness of the magnitude of the problem, and to the body of evidence of harm, education campaigns and regulation changes have been recently enacted in some jurisdictions to address this issue. To trained eyes, baited photos are obvious and will be rejected because they are not natural and because they pose an unacceptable level of risk.

Final Notes
As always, remember the issues surrounding private property and people’s privacy too. Don’t be one of the few inconsiderate people who give the naturalists’ community a black eye.

Even after the photos are taken, when it comes time to share, there are things to consider. When posting and labelling photos, providing good contextual information (but not precise location) makes all the difference. A close-up of an owl in the tall-thin posture without any context will set off alarm bells to the educated viewer but the very same photo with an explanation that the photographer only noticed the owl at close quarters and then immediately backed away to minimise disturbance (cropping later for effect) is perfectly understandable and legitimate. Precisely because there are so many risks and because there are so many people looking at owl photos, posting any close-up of an owl these days requires a strong contextual explanation.

Whenever I seek photos for an article or other publication, or when I judge photo contests, I am not looking for how close you got or how long you observed an owl (those things are more likely to set off alarm bells). I am looking for your photographic contribution, i.e. documenting natural behaviour, unusual aspects, how owls use their adaptations in their natural habitat. The pinnacle of owl photography is not a close-up but rather a photo that “paints a thousand words” about the owl and the owl’s world.  Documenting natural animal behaviour (in photos, videos or in sound recordings) provides enormous satisfaction but, in order to keep it natural, remember to keep your distance, limit your time, and exercise the precautionary principle.


  1. Thanks for this post Christian. Very informative and helpful to know.

  2. This is the single best article I have read on owl photography ethics. May I post a link to this in my own Blog? I live and bird in Michigan where Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls bring in huge numbers of photographers and this article would be very education for the community!

  3. Thank you Michigan Roads Birding and yes of course. My apologies for the delay in seeing this comment.


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