I love great bird photography, I truly do. Photos that capture great behaviour, and the incredible beauty of birds. Great photographs also inspire me to try and do better with my own photographs. Inspire me to try a little harder to get that composition just right, to get that jaw-dropping moment. Should I worry about how those photos were obtained? I have to say that pretty much every time that I see a great photo of an owl in flight, swooping down from a perch or low to the ground, in invariably think to myself “that was baited”. I might be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that I am right far more often than I am wrong. It bugs the heck out of me, but should it?
I have a friend in Ontario, who has been excitedly searching for Great Gray Owls during this winter’s irruption. I regularly see messages from her, and we’ve talked back and forth about her forays out and about to look for them. Today she found her owl.
Great Gray Owl plunging (photo by Nathalie Fortier)
The owl was attended by about 20 other people, photographers and birders. She got out and began taking photos and quickly realized that the owl was being baited with white mice. She took some photos, and though she was uncomfortable with the baiting, she thought that the opportunity for some great photos was to great to pass up. But as she stayed and mice were being tossed out, she decided it wasn’t for her, and she left the birds, and the group.
Great Gray Owl taking the bait (photo by Nathalie Fortier)
At the end of the experience, she posted her photographs clearly stating that the bird was baited, and leaving the mouse in most photos. She has clearly decided that for her baiting is not away to get a photo, and if one does get a photo that way then the ethical thing to do is to state that, much as one should do with captive animals. My own take on that mirrors it. Quite simply, I don’t like it. I question the release of non-native mice into the wild. Oh yeah, most end up as owl pellets, but surely the odd one escapes a talony death. And I question whether it is a good thing for the owls. Yes they are getting fed but is the net result of having to forage for food so close to people (the photographers in this equation) more stressful for them? How do birds that are already stressed, such as many of the Snowy Owls in the south this year are, fare?
I am well aware of the debate that this is no different than photographing birds at a feeder, but for me it feels different. One wouldn’t tether a rabbit out to get a shot of a fox or a coyote, or is that somehow different? An obvious difference to me is that, unless I’m unaware of the practice, people aren’t leaving the mice out for the good of the birds, going back every day sans camera. If they are doing it solely to capture the photo it isn’t aid it is exploitation. And as Ron Dudley shows, it goes beyond live mice, as he documented a whole chicken being left out by someone to attract raptors. At least a chicken would last awhile as a feeder.
I think the main thing for me, leaving aside the debate on invasive species and the birds welfare, is that it just feels like cheating. A few years back, Mike McDowell in his blog The Digiscoper, covered baiting owls in Not Baited. As is often the case, someone else’s words can convey my thoughts better than my own… “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.”
But that’s me, what do you think? Where do you stand? I know where I do.