For the Birds Radio Program: Owl Etiquette

Original Air Date: Jan. 11, 2005

Does this extraordinary owl invasion foretell the Rapture? Laura has been fielding some interesting questions, and has some recommendations for etiquette for the owls and other birders.

Duration: 5′40″


Owl frazzle

This year’s unprecedented Great Gray Owl invasion has frazzled the nerves of the entire birding community, especially after the ice storm and subsequent snow fall, which have made what mice there are increasingly inaccessible. I’m getting at least 5 or 6 telephone calls a day from people wondering where the best places are to go to enjoy seeing owls, or who are distraught because they just hit an owl or found one dead, or who are worried that an owl in their backyard might kill their shih tzu or even, in one case of serious overreaction, their adult Labrador Retriever. One superstitious person called yesterday to ask if these owls presaged the Rapture, along with the hurricanes, tsunami, and mudslides. Just dealing with so many phone calls gets stressful after a while.

But more worrisome in the long run is what we’re doing to the owls. Back in November, I posted some suggestions about owling etiquette on some birding listserves. I wrote: When you first drive up to an owl, stay in your car for a bit. Try to photograph from within the car first so if it does fly off when you get out, you at least have something. If you’re with a group, it’s smarter for the people on the far side of the car to get out first, or for everyone to slide over and get out on that side, and stay as a bunch–these northern owls are fairly easy going and calm around people, but if they have to move their head back and forth to keep track of more than one grouping, they sometimes feel a bit besieged and fly off. Close your car door quietly. Also, especially if you’re dealing with a Great Gray Owl that is actively hunting, make sure you turn your car engine off so it can hear mice more easily.

When you see a car pulled over, remember you’re not at Yellowstone. If you want to stop, stop BEHIND the other car, or beyond it if you’re coming from the other direction, and wait your turn in your car if someone or a group is photographing or scoping, at least for a reasonable time before getting out. If you want to pass, go slowly and don’t call out, especially if your car is between them and the owl. Never EVER walk between a bird and someone scoping or photographing it. If in your exuberance you do cause an owl or two owls to fly away when someone is right in the middle of trying to photograph them, there is only one proper thing to say: “I’m sorry.” You’re going to cause a lot of hard feelings if you say, “There’s plenty more around.”

Now that winter conditions are harder for the owls, Peder Svingen posted some additional suggestions for Owl viewing behavior and etiquette:

  • When an owl is sighted while driving, stop 75 feet or more away from a bird and turn off the engine. Avoid disturbing the bird as it feeds by being closer than that.
  • If the bird is looking at you it is not paying attention to hunting, leave it alone so it has a chance to feed.
  • Do not post a Boreal Owl sighting on the Mnbird or MOU-net. I am not sure all the birding pressure directed at a single bird will be a survivable incident. Please report it directly to the MOU rare bird alert and, if possible to Steve Wilson, who specializes in this species. Looking to discover the birds yourself may be challenging, but may reduce the pressure on an individual bird.
  • Start looking for the dead birds as well as the live birds. Look for the wing tips peeking out of the snow, not a pleasant task , yet it is important to know if starvation is setting in. We will have to check out the dead birds to determine their conditions.
  • Stick to the uninhabited areas or to feeder homes where you know you are welcome.
  • Do not drive less than 45 mph when on the main roads, if you have to stop, pull off where there is a place to do so. Walk to a better viewing area.
  • Use a scope when a closer proximity is not available
  • Go out of your way to be friendly. Wave and smile at all passing motorists.
  • If you have to stop and see birds at someone’s home, please go knock and talk with the person first, this may flush the birds, but it is more important for you to gain permission than to see the birds.
  • Carry calling cards or business cards to give to people you meet or to leave at local businesses.
  • Show respect to EVERY ONE. Trappers and people with aggressive trespassing signs should all be able to go on with their normal lives without us disrupting them in any way.

Peder’s suggestions are good even in situations when owls aren’t so stressed. If we can show respect to one another and seriously consider the needs of the owls, with luck we’ll get through this hard time with our feelings intact, and most of the owls alive.