A lot of people, both birders and non-birders, are fascinated by owls. I personally don’t get more excited by owls than any other group of birds, but some folks just lose all ethics and common sense when they come within close proximity of an owl. As I have often said, owls make people stupid.
Much of the worst birder behavior I have witnessed has been around owls. When people get too close, the results can range from simply annoying the animal to putting the bird at serious risk. So, I would like to offer a guide to enjoying these birds is such a way that keeps everyone involved safe from stress and harm.
Ethical owling is achieved by starting with two clear premises:
- Owls don’t like you.
To most species of wildlife, humans are perceived as a clear and present danger. Despite being predators themselves, owls are preyed upon by other species. The best defense employed by many owls is camouflage and just staying hidden during the day. If a large predator, like you, approaches an owl, the bird may become stressed, even to the point of flushing from their hidden perch. This in turn puts the owl at increased risk of being attacked by another predator.
- If an owl is looking right at you, you are changing that bird’s behavior, which may be putting the bird at risk.
That owl could have been sleeping, watching for potential prey, or preening. Your presence is preventing all of those natural behaviors. By observing and interpreting an owl’s behavior, you can effectively judge your potential impact on the bird and adjust your actions accordingly.
Smaller species of owls rely on their camouflage to keep them safe, and may remain completely still if you approach. So just because the bird is not flying away, it doesn’t mean that you are not causing stress. With larger species, you may be interfering with hunting activities or alerting other animals to the owl’s location.
If an owl is paying any attention to you, you are too close. When you encounter an owl, even if the bird does not seem affected by you, enjoy them briefly from a respectful distance and then move on.
A longer version of this post, complete with photos of various owl behaviors, is available on my Patreon Account.