Is ‘Baiting’ an ethical way to photograph wild owls?

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Owls make for stunning photography subjects thanks to their unique appearance and air of perpetual astonishment, but they’re also the source of a hot debate in the wildlife photography community. The main point of contention? “Baiting,” or the practice of putting out mice or other treats to draw the birds of prey closer.

I first heard about this controversy while on an owling walk a few weeks ago, and I quickly found myself falling into a rabbit hole of an argument that reveals a lot about the ethics of wildlife photography.

The growing accessibility of camera equipment, paired with a reemerging appreciation for nature, means that more and more photographers are seeking the perfect wildlife shot. An owl swooping down after prey can be visually striking, and also a rare moment for a photographer relying on timing and patience to get a picture.

My wildlife photographer friends rely on tactics like camera traps, camping out and waiting for hours, sometimes not even getting a single usable shot on any given day. But there’s a shortcut: Put out a meal or something that looks like one.

A Canadian birder wrote about an awkward and upsetting encounter when she got wind of an owl for her life list and went to check it out. When she arrived to see a in person, she found a crowd of birders and photographers.

At first, she thought that the group was simply appreciating the bird, but she quickly realized that the photographers were tossing out mice to get better shots. The owl started behaving strangely, and she found herself in an ethical quandary, wondering if she should say something or not.

While baiting is not just used on owls, Scott Weidensaul of the Audubon Society notes that there are some particular ethical issues with baiting owls and raptors. For starters, the birds can become habituated to humans if they’re fed — and that’s not good. We need raptors to stay wild and give people a wide berth.

In particular, birders have noticed an increase in vehicle deaths, noting that people may be baiting owls near or even on the road to get a clear, unobstructed shot from a very convenient location. The owls learn to associate people with food. As a result, the birds dismiss the road as a safety risk, so they’re often injured or killed by passing traffic.

Raptors should hunt for their own food, because it’s part of their healthy behavioral patterns. When they’re fed by photographers and others seeking to get a closer look, it can disrupt their lives, which isn’t good for the longevity of the species.

While biologists can and do use bait in some settings while conducting research, they do so with ethical oversight — and sparingly — because they want to allow their subjects to live as naturally as possible.

It can be frustrating to take a trip to see owls or other wildlife and not spot a single individual. For instance, we saw a grand total of one on our owling walk, though we heard many others, including barn owls, screen owls, great horned owls and spotted owls.

Photographers sometimes travel hundreds or thousands of miles for that special moment, and some aren’t just snapping casual shots, but compiling books and exhibits.

The ethical divide over baiting is driven by birders and photographers who reject the practice entirely, and those who do it, but may have varying opinions on where and when it’s appropriate.

If you think it’s impossible to get a good shot without baiting, check out Ethical Owl Photography, which showcases images taken without baiting or harassment.

For consumers of wildlife photography, like me, there’s another problem: If we think baiting is unethical and don’t want to support it, how do we know if a photograph features a baited owl, or one snapped in natural conditions? Some photographers are proactively describing the circumstances in which photos were taken, and specifically asking may serve as an incentive to let owls behave naturally.

This article was first published by on 07 Apr 2017.

We invite you to share your opinion whether ‘Baiting’ is an ethical way to photograph wild owls? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page.

Is ‘Baiting’ an ethical way to photograph wild owls?

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Editorial Comment: The purpose of this poll is to highlight important wildlife conservation issues and to encourage discussion on ways to stop . By leaving a comment and sharing this post you can help to raise awareness. Thank you for your support.


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Minna Lindroth

There are arguments for and against feeding owls and other wildlife, but I’m yet to see the against arguments dished without the morality aspect, such as the “pleasure or convenience” etc. Too many of these discussions are about one lot’s perceived right against another group’s. Feeding is hardly evil per se; there are many ways to engage in it, and some may actually be beneficial to the wildlife. There is no way we can categorically claim that all feeding is bad. Also, this notion that wildlife needs to remain pure and wild and untainted by the human touch is a… Read more »

Sandra Coté

There has been an increasing amount of exposure on this topic and it seems that owl-baiting is frowned upon by the majority nowadays. It’s very convenient for owl-baiters to fall back on flawed reasoning, such as the starvation argument, and lose sight of the ethics of manipulating wildlife (and changing natural behaviour) for our convenience or pleasure.

Daniella Zylen

Starvation argument??? do you have any idea just how many birds die each year from that argument? And most of those who complain are just PLAIN hipocrytes because most of them have birds feeders. Putting bird feeders in your backyard is even more dangerous for the birds because they become an easy prey for birds of prey….but who cares about that huh???

Daniella Zylen

I am just plain sick and tired of all that propaganda. I KNOW very well what’s going on with feeding owls because I have been doing it for years and will keep doing it. I don’t even take pictures any longer but I still feed them when ever I have the occasion. I have yet to see any one do something unethical and if I do, I will tell those who do.

Sandra Coté

The fact that people have bird feeders is another common argument–which is never true justification nor a reason to feed owls. It’s widely known that habituated wildlife loses fear of humans which puts them at risk in various ways. An artificial food source may keep an owl in an area with an insufficient prey base as well as causing unnatural territorial aggression towards other owls, humans or pets (owls would normally hunt away from people, predators, and competitors). They don’t need to be fed by us, as owl experts will tell you. Here in Manitoba feeding wild owls is almost… Read more »

Anda V Johanna
Anda V Johanna

NO. Nothing ethical in ‘baiting’ anyone: humans or non-humans.

Nina Stavlund

yeah right, more propaganda. If this is so, then why not let them starve when they are found half dead on the side of roads or in the fiels because they are too emanciated to even fly??? In Ottawa many birders put signs and complained to the wildfile service about 4 great gray that were fed. The wildlife service came to investigate and they concluded that it was in the owls best interest to keep feeding them, so there was no interdiction done. This was from the Canadian wildlife service. They concluded that what ever food the birds could get… Read more »

Daniella Zylen

wow! what a load of BS and propaganda from yet another birder… There are far more owls that die from starvation than those that get hit by cars and those that get hit by cars often do because they are too weak to avoid cars and too bold because they are starving. Especially great gray owls and snowy owls are victim to starvation. I have seen people bait great gray owls in the Ottawa region and being literally harrassed by birders to the point where it was a case for court. Although those 4 great grays were in a place… Read more »