Tuesday, March 21, 2017

White on White

Signs of spring in Southern Ontario have been quite widespread in the past few weeks - indeed, Murray and I ran two Tundra Swan viewing trips last weekend, which means Spring is slowly inching forward.

I've had the best winter I've had in a long time, largely because the winters here in Huntsville are really winters - with lots of snow, ice for fishing, cool winter birds and good mammal watching. The fact that Amanda and I had our own apartment here, and that I was busy almost every weekend guiding trips also helped a lot.

One thing I really wanted to do this winter was go look for Willow Ptarmigans in north-central Québec. I only learned that this is possible a short while back - apparently, in most years Willow Ptarmigan make it to Chibougamau, a mining town in the Jamésie region that has a well-maintained road leading to it. Indeed, there are outfitters that operate ptarmigan hunts there, and there are counts of 300+ birds in some years! It seems to me that this is one of the most accessible (and cheapest!!) venues to see a ptarmigan in winter plumage.

Unfortunately, it has been hard to organize a trip up there. I wanted to go with a few people and during good weather - which can be hard to predict and difficult to plan for. My good friend and fellow Huntsville birder and naturalist David had a couple of days off and wanted to go on the trip - but it was so that the two days he had were a Monday and Tuesday, and on the Sunday I was guiding a trip to Long Point to look at Tundra Swans. The window was narrow, and I didn't want to waste the opportunity. The weather looked great. I finished with my clients in Toronto, headed up to Huntsville and slept for about three hours until 2 am, and then Amanda, David and I headed north.

The first official bird of the trip was a male Snowy Owl a few hundred metres from Québec in Temiskaming, sitting on a post at about 5 AM. We were getting pretty tired, and the bird gave us enough energy to make it to dawn, which we greeted in Rouyn-Noranda with a temperature of -32C.

We decided to take a shortcut to the Route 113 by going up a series of smaller roads. This proved to be a bad idea - much of the roads were covered in ice and there were several treacherous washouts. One was so bad that we almost contemplated turning around - but we were almost there. Luckily, the Rav4 made it through.

While we did lose about 2 hours worth of driving, it was not all in vain. The roads, especially Route 397, looked awesome to check out for birding and insects in the summer. We passed some great looking Connecticut and Wilson's Warbler habitat, and many small streams, bogs and clearings that would have been amazing for Somatochlora emeralds and butterflies. We found where all the redpolls were - on this road - and had good looks at a fat Hoary Redpoll amongst them, as well as clouds of Pine Grosbeaks and a couple of White-winged Crossbills.

Once we got on the Route 113 that leads to Chibougamau, we were faced with a problem. We were running late, and would probably only have a couple of hours to search for ptarmigans in Chibougamau, with a real chance for failure. Our original plan included most of the day to search, and then heading back to Rouyn after dark so we can do some more birding and have a head start to Huntsville the next day - but now, it looked like we'd have to stay in Chibougamau, try for the ptarmigans the next day, and then perform another marathon drive back to Huntsville. The morale was dropping.

Suddenly, David shouted "There they are!" and I bolted upright from dozing off in the passenger seat to see a flock of birds - whiter than white - fly off from the shoulder of the highway. We pulled over and all jumped out of the car and headed towards the ptarmigans.

Willow Ptarmigan

They seemed quite skittish (perhaps due to hunting pressure) but still allowed relatively close views. They were unperturbed when a snowplow blew past them, but eventually they decided that they'd had enough of us and flew across the road, which allowed us to see their black outer rectrices.

A fantastic experience! Ptarmigans were one of the first birds I remember learning about as a small child in Russia (there called "White Grouse") and it was really great to finally see a few - and in their winter finery no less.

Willow Ptarmigan

We lucked out in the fact that the birds were much closer than we had anticipated - about 160 km south from where we were planning to start looking. Now we had much more time to spend and bird in a relaxed pace. We drove a bit further up the road to see if we could find more ptarmigans (we could not) and then made our way south to Rouyn-Noranda, stopping at a small town to get gas, cheese curds and admire the lovely Evening and Pine Grosbeaks coming to the bird feeders.

We tried to find Sharp-tailed Grouse on some backroads on the way down, unsuccessfully. Once we got down to Rouyn we decided to drive a road that Amanda and I had visited a few weeks back to look for owls. We didn't have any luck finding Great Gray Owls, but the very long-staying Northern Hawk Owl was still there and allowed for great views right beside the road.

Northern Hawk Owl

We were pretty tired from over 15 hours on the road and fell asleep pretty quickly!

We were only a couple of hours from Huntsville in Rouyn so we took our time driving back. As we drove down Amanda yelled "There's a hawk owl in that guy's yard!" We spun around to watch the hawk owl, this time at a fair distance but still in a very classic hawk-owl manner perched on the tip top of a spruce. A great bird, and one that I never really tire of seeing.

Northern Hawk Owl

Which is good, because we had all simultaneously spotted yet another hawk owl, this time sitting on someone's antenna. It was fairly comical to see. This had been mine and Amanda's fifth Northern Hawk Owl sighting (four different birds) this year! Other groups of birders heading out to try their luck at the recent burn in Hearst, Ontario have also been seeing many of these charismatic owls. What a great year for this species in the north.

Northern Hawk Owl

We arrived at Hilliardton at about noon. We decided to cruise some of the roads as there have been lots of finches and a Great Gray Owl around. It was a beautiful sunny day and kind of the worst time to look for Great Gray Owls, but birds sometimes don't do what they're supposed to. We drove the road where the bird had been seen in the evenings in the past without luck. I decided that rather than go back the same way, we could take another road that ran parallel just a little ways to the north. I was going at a pretty good clip when Amanda spotted a Great Gray Owl sitting on a fallen tree nestled in some alders at the side of the road!

Great Gray Owl

I was scanning the border of a field to my left as I drove, so when I turned around to back up, I noticed a second Great Gray Owl sitting right over the road! It was remarkable that these birds were out so late in the day in such bright sunlight. It looked smaller compared to the first one, so perhaps they were a pair. The sexual dimorphism isn't strong in this species, however, so that very well may not have been the case.

Great Gray Owl
The one in the tree may have been hunting, but Amanda's bird was definitely roosting. It was in a sheltered area and had its eyes partially closed most of the time we watched it. We spent a good amount of time with the two birds. We could have probably got some excellent pictures in the great light if we waited, but the owls looked very content where they were, and we had neither the patience nor the desire to wait for them to do something and left them in peace.

Our drive back to Huntsville was relatively unexciting, but we arrived home with great memories of our trip to the boreal forest, and with plenty of time to get a good night's rest - a hot commodity in the world of birding!

Willow Ptarmigan tracks

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Level-headed Look at Feeding Birds: Consequences and Benefits

Feeding birds has always been a hotly-debated issue. In Ontario, especially during winter, we have a large variety of birds that are responsive to being fed and this generates a lot of attention at this time of year. I have always had a strong opinion on the various practices of feeding birds, and over the course of several weeks have been adding to this blog post, which has been a long time coming.

I have tried my best to share my opinion on feeding birds. While not much research has been done on the effects of feeding various birds, I have tried to include references where I could, as well as my own anecdotal observations over about a decades worth of intensive birding and photography effort on my part. Hopefully, reader, the following bit of opinion and fact can help you make your own decision on this often controversial practice.

The first thing I’d like to explore is this simple question: why do people feed birds?

I can think of three main reasons.
  • Achieve a connection with nature close to home.
  • Achieve the impression of providing help to those who need it.
  • Obtain photographs or better views of birds.

The first one, from my experience, is the most common and obvious. Having a bird feeder in the backyard allows the beginning naturalist to study and observe different species of birds at close range. It allows the observation of basic behavior and adaptation – different birds eating different foods, social interactions at the feeder etc. Many folks I have spoken to had a bird feeder during childhood and it helped them develop a passion for nature that they continue through this day. Especially during the slow days of winter, watching birds coming to the feeder, identifying them and recording their numbers gives great pleasure to millions of people, including myself. I firmly believe that bird feeders are a great tool for fueling the love for nature, especially for kids – and nature could use some love.

Another reason a lot of folks would give for feeding birds is that it appears to help birds survive hard times. This is easy to see especially when there is inclement weather and birds gather in droves at the feeder. In really bad weather, a bird feeder could mean the difference between life and death for individual birds, and knowing that you may be saving a life is a good feeling that a lot of people desire.

There is one fact that cannot be ignored, however – birds do not require supplemental food from humans in order to survive.

In areas without bird feeders, “feeder” birds still persist. The density of these species is lower outside of feeder-rich areas – especially resident species such as chickadees.  It is hard for us to imagine an animal starving to death – but starvation is a natural control agent. Removing the possibility of starvation impacts the local ecosystem. This is especially true of areas where waterfowl are fed in the winter. It is not difficult to understand that a congregation of hundreds of ducks, geese and swans would not concentrate naturally in one small area.  Studies have shown degraded water quality, increased bacteria in such areas (Fleming and Fraser, 2001).


Many areas where people feed ducks, geese and swans suffer from poor water quality and sometimes the birds develop nutritional deficiencies from a poor diet. A huge concentration of waterfowl close to humans also likely exposes them to greater risks from urban predators such as coyotes, and ingesting or getting caught in foreign material.

It is actually a fact that having a bird feeder kills birds. There are a variety of statistics that indicate that free-roaming cats and windows are well-known bird killers. Having a bird feeder exposes birds to both of these threats. While the big statistics having to do with windows are likely large office buildings, most of us with bird feeders have seen a window strike or two that could have been prevented if there wasn’t a bird feeder. Cats prowl in many urban and suburban areas and are effective predators on birds – and concentrated birds at a feeder make an easy target. Birds of prey also frequently visit bird feeders, and one study showed that backyards with feeders had a much more likely chance of having birds eaten by hawks than backyards without bird feeders. This is a no-brainer – but the study does exist (Dunn and Tessaglia 1993) It was done to look at predation of birds at feeders – and the study concluded that the predation likely does little to no harm to bird populations.

Sharp-shinned Hawk eating House Sparrow.
I was responsible for the death of this House Sparrow by attracting it to my feeder, which was hunted by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. If it were not for the feeder, the sparrow would have still been alive - but on the other hand, the hawk may not.

Many diseases, such as salmonella and avian conjunctivitis, are transmitted by bird feeders and local epidemics can happen due to feeders that may kill hundreds of birds (Thomas, Hunter, Atkinson 2007, Infectious Diseases of Wild Birds). If one does not clean their feeder regularly, it can do real damage.

Having a properly placed bird feeder that is often cleaned does little to no harm to bird populations. It does likely impact the local ecosystem by saturating it with “micro” predators - because all those chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and the like feed on arthropods when they’re not coming to the feeder. That is something that still needs to be studied.

That being said – if what one values are the lives of individual birds, then having a bird feeder is not the way to go. You will definitely be responsible for the deaths of many more birds if you have a bird feeder than if you do not. I would say that most people believe that the pleasure of being able to interact with feeder birds is worth losing the occasional one to a hawk or a cat.

The conclusion I have come to is that most people have bird feeders with good intentions – to interact with birds at close range, or to achieve the feeling that they are helping out beings in need. Regardless of the intention, the fact remains – birds do not need feeders to survive, and humans have bird feeders solely to satisfy human desires.

The third reason why people feed birds is again for a very obvious human benefit - obtaining views or photographs. This is where owl baiting fits in most clearly. Having a mouse dispenser in a yard to enjoy flocks of owls would be unrealistic and expensive, so I don’t think that is ever the case. Some folks may feed owls because they perceive them to be starving – the same fact above applies – they do not require supplemental food from humans even if they are starving, which is often not the case at least for Snowy Owls. Most folks I encounter are baiting owls for one purpose – to photograph them.

Other raptors, hummingbirds and songbirds are all potential photography subjects that respond to baiting. Birds like gulls and rare small-and-brown feeder vagrants don’t gather the same crowds as an owl, but are often baited by people who desire better looks or photos.

Ivory Gull

We baited this Ivory Gull using a steelhead fillet to get better looks and pictures. It was unconcerned by the presence of people because it has likely never seen one before. A variety of other gulls were present and accustomed to people because it was a busy park.

The negative impacts of feeding these birds are not much different than feeding birds in the yard – they are attracted to potential threats (roads, predators), and it likely impacts the local ecosystem by congregating them in a smaller area. Rodents purchased from pet stores are produced for the purpose of feeding often very expensive reptiles, and are unlikely to be harboring diseases, as that would be very bad for business - not to mention a very real workplace hazard. There may be a slight risk from disease, but likely not as high as getting a disease at a feeder, or hunting rodents near human habitation, which may have been poisoned and has resulted in the deaths of owls before.

A strong argument against feeding birds is the fact that feeding owls and other birds habituates them to humans, which brings another question:

What are the costs of habituating birds to people?

Habituation is defined as “a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations.”

This means that a bird that sees and interacts with people on a regular basis, such as when being fed, it loses its fear of humans.

Birds of all descriptions readily become human-habituated. Gray Jays in Algonquin Provincial Park are an excellent example of human-habituated birds – they will land on people’s hands and heads in order to get a snack. Anyone who enters the Spruce Bog trail in winter, regardless whether or not they are carrying birdseed, gets “attacked” by chickadees and nuthatches.  Bold gulls in popular beachfront areas will steal human snacks while the owners are not looking. Owls that have been fed extensively will follow cars, “begging” for handouts in a similar manner. Bald Eagles at dumps. Pigeons in downtown. There are many examples.

Bald Eagle

This Bald Eagle was one of several birds eating garbage at a landfill in North Bay. It recognized that people brought food and would approach people and machinery.

It may be bizarre to see a Great Gray Owl acting somewhat a Gray Jay. The main difference is that Gray Jays and chickadees are able to utilize a wider diversity of food than owls, but they are still predators on insects and other small animals. All birds, especially during winter, are mainly driven by food.

Most owls that are easily fed by humans – Snowy, Great Gray, Barred and Northern Hawk Owls, are all irruptive migrants to some extent, that move south from their northern breeding grounds – for the latter three, it has been show largely due to food shortage
(Nero 1980 , Mikkola 1983 , Duncan 1992). They will all hunt during the day to some extent as well, which makes it easier for photographers to feed them and obtain pictures.

A couple of things are important to realize – all birds are driven by food in the winter, and food for birds – especially owls – is often few and far between. A Great Gray Owl may travel a long distance without encountering any food – and indeed, they seem to be capable of withstanding starvation for prolonged periods (Voous 1988b). Radio-tracking shows individuals can travel (day and night) up to 40 km in 24 hours! The nature of a common prey base for northern owls – voles and lemmings – indicates that they may be locally abundant in one area while in another they may be absent. That could mean that one field may be overrun with voles while in the surrounding area they may be rare or absent.

A few weeks ago, Amanda and I observed no owls in several acres of farm fields in northern Québec, but one field held a Northern Hawk Owl and two (later three) Great Gray Owls. We watched a Great Gray Owl capture meadow voles 1 out of 3 times it dove – clearly there was a lot of food in this small area. In 2013, small mammal numbers in Algonquin Park were very high (Wildlife Research Station Report 2014). Great Gray Owls staged an irruption that winter, and a couple of birds were seen in Algonquin for many weeks. This year, Great Gray Owls are also staging an irruption, but the small mammal numbers in Algonquin seem to be poor, and no owls are sticking around. Snowy Owls are capable hunters and have a much broader selection of prey including other mammals and birds, and a look at Project SNOWstorm reveals that they travel a surprising amount even when wintering.

Great Gray Owl
Amanda and I watched this owl capture several voles in quick succession. It was hunting a field with another two Great Gray Owls and a Northern Hawk Owl - all of which were attracted here apparently due to a local rodent outbreak.

Birds, including northern owls, are adapted to fluctuating amounts of food. Baited owls are unlikely to starve if people suddenly stopped baiting them, as it would be similar to exhausting a natural food source and then moving along to find a new one.  Northern owls, even heavily baited ones, return northwards on the arrival of spring – just like hummingbirds move on from hummingbird feeders on the onset of fall. It is widely believed now that bird feeders don’t prevent birds from migrating though they may alter their migratory routes. Many people take down their feeders in spring. It is important to remember that prior to European colonization, there were no farm fields in Ontario for Snowy Owls to hunt in during winter, so they had to move further during irruption years, likely towards the coast, and probably suffered greater losses due to starvation.

I think it is safe to assume that owls or other birds aren’t at risk of losing their ability to hunt or migrate due to baiting due to their abilities to adapt to widely fluctuating food sources. The obvious still remains – baited owls show less fear of humans than non-baited owls.

This is best addressed owl-by-owl. The three owl species most subjected to baiting (from my anecdotal observations) are the Snowy, Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls.

Great Gray and hawk owls, even birds that have never seen a white mouse before, are by default generally very tame around people (though this is dependent on individual birds as well). I have been around birds of both species that permitted a very close approach to within a couple of feet that did not exhibit any signs of stress, and I was in remote northern areas where baiting had not taken place. Feeding these birds causes them to be even bolder. I have been approached very closely by baited Hawk Owls expecting food. I have less experience with baited Great Gray Owls, but numerous photos and videos of birds sitting on tripods and taking food from the hand make it apparent that they respond very well to being fed.  For these species, there was not much of a fear of humans to begin with – similar to how Gray Jays often sit on people’s heads and come to the hand readily wherever they are fed, but Blue Jays even in the most populated areas very rarely exhibit any of this behavior.

Great Gray Owl w/ Short-tailed Shrew

I approached this Great Gray Owl slowly while watching for signs of stress. It was breeding in a bog far away from humans and was not subjected to baiting. I approached until the bird was about two feet from my face. It flushed, but it had actually dove to capture a small mammal I had disturbed from beneath my feet, and landed with its left wing almost grazing my shoe. I felt the displaced air from its wings as it came back up and resumed hunting within a few feet of me. It did not seem to recognize me as anything but scenery.

Snowy Owls are quite different. From my experience, Snowies that have not been fed often flush at the approach of a human from a long distance away. Even when approached with cars, they are not comfortable unless they are at a decent height. Birds coming in to bait grab the mouse and fly off into the field to eat it. Only after birds that have been heavily fed will they permit a close approach, and even then will often eat their prey further away from the people feeding them. These are birds of open tundra and land-based, mammalian predators are an important feature in their habitats (Holt, Denver W., Matt D. Larson, Norman Smith, Dave L. Evans and David F. Parmalee 2015 ) – which is perhaps why they are more timid of people than the boreal forest-dwelling species above. They are also hunted in certain parts of their range (moreso historically than currently).

I have never seen or heard of a Snowy Owl taking food from the hand, perching on a tripod, or being stroked by a person. Snowy Owls will come to cars and groups of people and “beg” for food – but usually only at a perceived safe distance or height.
Snowy Owl

This Snowy Owl was from an area where Snowy Owls were frequently fed. It had approached parked vehicles and landed on a post directly adjacent to but well above a vehicle, vocalizing - clearly anticipating food in a strikingly similar manner to a Gray Jay. It was given a mouse, which it grabbed in flight from a close distance to the photographers and then flew well back into the field to swallow it. It then returned to the same post.

Owls, especially Barred and Great Horned Owls, can sometimes be very aggressive around the nest. Many accounts of owls "attacking" people or pets are due to such threats being close to the nest, not because they expect to be fed (Rohner 1997).. Great Horned Owls are active almost exclusively at night and so are undesirable targets for baiting.

A variety of other birds also come directly to humans for food, including passerines like chickadees and the like, Wild Turkeys, and a variety of gulls. Many of these species will not normally approach people for food as “wild” birds but lose their fear of people completely and up to the point of taking food directly from the hand.  Unlike the northern owls, some of these birds are year-round residents of wherever they are fed, so their habituation and all of the negative effects associated with it occur for 365 days a year and impact not only them, but their offspring as well. Some, like Wild Turkeys, are game birds and habituating them to people in areas where there is hunting pressure makes for a very easy hunt. Others, such as Blue Jays and grackles, are nest predators and concentrating them in one area for a period of time extending into the nesting season may negatively impact the breeding birds in that area.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays and Blue Jays are similarly-sized birds with a similar diet, which includes live animals such as other birds and small mammals. Both would likely take live mice from people if offered, but most usually offer them seeds and nuts as they will readily eat those. Gray Jays are much more confiding and Blue Jays rarely come to the hand even in areas with lots of people feeding them. Both will approach people expecting food.

Most people will agree that feeding a Gray Jay or chickadee is not the same as feeding an owl – but there are some similarities. In various areas in Algonquin Park, chickadees and Gray Jays seek humans for food, and often fly across busy Highway 60 to access them – rendering them vulnerable to collisions - a major argument against owl baiting. There is data that suggests road mortality negatively impacts bird populations – and there is a lot of data that suggests individual owls are vulnerable to this plight (Bishop & Morgan, 2013) They are low and slow-flying birds. Having near-misses and collisions with birds in the past, I can say it is easier to take evasive action when I see an owl-sized bird crossing the road vs. a chickadee - at least during the day. Most owls are hit at night, when they would not be subject to baiting and are more difficult to see. I think it is fair to say that drawing any bird to the road – be it owl, chickadee, turkey etc. places it in higher risk of vehicle collision. Owls are likely drawn to roads naturally, because they mimic edge habitat, attract rodents and provide elevated perches in the form of power poles - though irresponsible baiting during the day can likely increase their risk of collision as well. About 40% of the owls that an Ontario rehabilitation center specializing in owls admits are due to road collisions (The Owl Foundation, Jeff Jones pers. comm. 2017).

Snow Buntings

This flock of Snow Bunting was baited to the side of a relatively busy road by people putting down corn. It allowed close views and photographs of the buntings, but I witnessed several near-misses due to speeding cars not noticing the small birds. It is difficult to know how many small birds die due to road mortality because they are often crushed beyond recognition or picked up by scavengers
(Bishop & Morgan, 2013)

Folks will often say that feeding chickadees and other birds from the hand is an education opportunity, but I believe the educational value is minimal, save for getting a close look at the bird. Normally, birds would not approach humans, or eat non-naturally occurring food items like peanuts and sunflower seeds – so there is not much ecological integrity in the practice.

So far, the answer to “Is human habituation good, bad, or neutral?” has been mostly negative. Is there a positive to birds being human-habituated? I think so.

Hand-feeding chickadees has brought joy to many adults and children alike, and has undoubtedly sparked interest in the natural world for many young naturalists. It may not be educational, and may cause behavioral changes in the animals involved, but if a few kids who have hand-fed chickadees become conservation-minded voters, or – even better – go on to work in the field of conservation, then that is a major victory.

I have yet to see a family feeding an owl – it is a bit more macabre (though this may be a good “circle-of-life” talk opportunity), so are there any benefits that owls have specifically? I also think the answer is yes.

Where in Ontario do you go to photograph a Barred Owl? If you answered “Whitby”, then you are correct. Most bird photographers have visited this celebrity bird, and some have undoubtedly fed it. Regardless of your opinion of this local “celebrity” – in every photograph I see of it, it looks like it could not care less about its adoring crowds. If the masses of photographers who visit this bird went on to find their own Barred Owls to get similar photos, it would result in a lot of stressed out Barred Owls.

Barred Owl

Barred Owls are usually fairly tolerant of people, but do not often permit a very close approach or loud noises. This is the Whitby Barred Owl reacting to a gang of loud children, a half-dozen loudly talking photographers and birders and two Rottweilers directly below its perch. Many folks saw a Barred Owl and it was not a negative experience for the owl.

Snowy Owls west of Barrie are a similar story. There are lots of owls and more photographers and birders that go and see them. They are fed extensively for the duration of their stay, which makes them less wary of the groups of people coming to see them. Many people who object aggressively to baiting the owls are more than happy to photograph the habituated birds from a short distance away – which is only possible because the birds had been baited beforehand. Trying to photograph Snowy Owls that have not been habituated is difficult because the birds are wary by nature. Often, birds are flushed frequently and trespassing may occur in an attempt to get better views and photos of these wary birds – both actions that are detrimental to the bird and the image of birders and photographers to the public.

Snowy Owl

I took a beginner birder/photographer group out to look at Snowy Owls. We got beautiful views of this Snowy Owl in an area where Snowy Owls are baited frequently and habituated to people. It tolerated about a dozen people standing directly below it and talking relatively loudly, and did not flush or show signs of stress and remained on the post after we left. We did not feed the owl, but it was tolerant because it had been habituated. My clients were happy with their views and photos and I did not flush or otherwise harass any Snowy Owls, visit or divulge the locations of other owls, or trespass onto private property.

A lot of professional photographers run workshops where they take groups of people out and feed the owls in order to achieve professional-quality photographs. The most professional and ethical guides do this on private property, well out into a field, and with lots of clients – clients that may have otherwise attempted to do the same thing themselves and harassed many other owls, potentially in dangerous roadside areas or while trespassing. Ethical and professional photography guides have little reason to visit owls outside of their personal regular areas, which reduces pressure on other birds and often draws birds away from the road into the field used for workshops. I have yet to find or hear of anyone finding a road-killed Snowy Owl west of Barrie, and there are lots of owls, lots of people and lots of fast cars.

So far I have argued that feeding birds is not without consequences, but otherwise is relatively harmless. Unfortunately, there is a darker side to feeding birds, and this is where most people, including myself, have a problem with it.

I used to spend a lot of time in the American tropics, and one of the main subjects for photography there was the abundance of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are not easy to photograph, so I wondered what these hummingbird workshops consisted of, and I was not impressed.

A multi-flash setup used for photographing hummingbirds I saw in Ecuador.

A hummingbird feeder is placed in the centre of a ring of multiple external flashes to illuminate the birds from every angle. All of the other hummingbird feeders are taken down, forcing dozens of birds normally spread between several feeders to resort to the one used by the workshop. Then, all of the holes on the feeder are plugged except one, which gave a profile view of the hummingbird coming to the feeder.

The birds were visibly stressed, with many birds attempting to feed from the single feeder port at the same time. Hummingbirds are extremely aggressive, and this resulted in serious fights that would often end up on the ground. A single bird (usually a big species like a violetear or Rufous-tailed) would dominate the feeder and exhaust itself attempting to chase away all the rivals – all the while being constantly battered with flash. It was not a pretty scene and caused obvious visible stress in the birds for the duration of the time - heavy breathing, lethargy, and lengthy aggressive physical contact. Since hummingbirds have incredibly high metabolisms, suddenly removing a source of abundant food likely has negative effects. In inclement weather, I imagine that it could even be fatal. All people who feed hummingbirds wish to obtain pleasure from them, but some people do not care for the welfare of the birds and do it irresponsibly.

Green-breasted Mango

I photographed this Green-breasted Mango coming to a feeder. I got much fewer good photos and photo opportunities than if I were to use a multi-flash setup and take down most of the feeders, but I did not want to disturb the birds and did my best without having to harass them. That being said, the bird was drawn into the area because of the bait (a feeder) and I manipulated myself into the best position to photograph it. In this location hummingbirds would allow themselves to be touched gently while feeding, a product of human habituation.

Another technique popular here in North America works in a similar fashion, where one would visit an area where birds are accustomed to bird feeders, remove or cover the feeders and force the birds to favorable perches for photography.  People attempt this in Algonquin Park (without success) fairly frequently. Many photos of feeder birds “fighting” or “displaying” that garner so much attention are due to the birds suddenly forced to compete for a tiny feeder port, when a few minutes ago they had open access to a variety of feeders. This causes visible stress to birds – the aggressive behaviors that make for interesting photographs. One can set up a special photography feeder almost anywhere, but visiting a known feeding station visited by many birds and suddenly removing the food produces faster results, and makes for “fighting” shots - to the misfortune of the local birds.

Pine Siskin ``Wave Display``

Many birds (such as these Pine Siskins) are already too close for comfort while using a feeder, and some people exploit this fact by making only a small portion of the feeder accessible by removing other feeders or ports, which causes the birds to fight and waste valuable energy while posing for "action" shots.

Feeding live House Mice to raptors comes with its own problems. Mice aren’t cheap, and many people don't wish to sacrifice a living animal to get photographs of another. The result is some people attempting to bait owls without actually giving the birds food, or downright mocking them with fake mice. I have seen pictures of mice in glass jars being used – which likely causes a lot of stress for the mouse, and stress and potential injury for the owl attempting to capture the mouse. Using fake mice causes the bird to waste energy with multiple passes without gaining any energy itself. If the bird somehow ingests the fake mouse, that could potentially lead to serious internal injuries. An owl that is constantly forced to fly without receiving food loses energy, and similar to the hummingbird example above, if the bird is actually starving it could theoretically be fatal. It prevents the bird from moving along to find other prey because a “prey item” is still visible and the bird will continue to attempt to capture it and lose energy.

Feeding any sort of bird can be done unethically, in order to exploit the animal while causing it undue stress – this includes hummingbirds, songbirds, and owls. Owls garner more attention because they are large, obvious, less common and eat live food – but there are a variety of ways that feeding birds can harm them and a variety of people willing to use them because they do not have a concern for their welfare or don’t know any better. When judging the ethics of feeding birds, the species isn't as important as the technique, location and level of respect given to the bird.

Another strong point I consider when speaking against raptor baiting specifically comes from an ethical perspective on the bait itself. Using sugar water or seeds to bait birds is not the same as using another living animal.

Mice that are bought in pet stores to bait birds are the same used for feeding reptiles, so in a way they are similar to the chickens, cows and other “food” animals – they are produced for consumption. We have eight snakes at home (all rescues) and they eat these same mice and rats, albeit most of the time pre-killed and frozen. I personally eat meat, fish, and hunt.  If I could hunt enough game birds to replace chicken in my diet, I would, because I know that when I shoot a grouse it has been living a natural life before it died – I cannot say the same about factory-farm chickens. Likewise, I have seen my snakes kill live feeder mice on several occasions, and it is a drawn-out death by constriction. An owl dispatches a mouse much quicker. Either way, an animal bred for the purpose of consumption is consumed. There are lots of folks who do not eat meat and do not believe that animals should be bred for consumption. This is an opinion that I respect, and in my eyes a very valid reason for being against owl baiting, and is a personal decision.

Pumpkin is a Kenyan Sand Boa. She is a good eater, but some of her friends sometimes refuse to eat unless their prey is alive. Pet snakes like Pumpkin are the main reason feeder mice are readily available and a big business.

A quick note about mammals. Unfortunately, most mammals cannot fly and so cannot use their environment in the same way that birds can. While birds are adapted to cope with food shortages by undertaking local or long-distance movements, mammals don’t have that luxury. In response to shortages of voles or seeds, birds migrate while mammals starve to death. Starvation is an important natural control agent. As a result, feeding mammals can be very detrimental – especially large carnivores such as coyotes and foxes. This can create an artificial abundance of these predators that will continue to affect the local ecosystem throughout their artificially long lives, and because they are higher-level predators, the effects will be more severe. Mammals are more intelligent than most birds; habituating them to humans can be dangerous to property or other humans. If suddenly the food source disappears (i.e. house owners move out), the animal(s) may starve and become aggressive as a result, and may be destroyed. Mammals can also carry diseases that can be transferred to humans through close contact. Habituating any sort of mammal, with the possible exception of rodents, which are lower on the food chain and have normally short lives regardless, is usually a bad idea.

Red Fox with Squirrels

Red Foxes are excellent hunters. Feeding Red Foxes puts a lot of pressure on the area where they live - concentrating them and increasing their survival rate beyond what is normal. While it may seem like we are doing a good deed and helping an animal survive starvation, if that same animal would have naturally starved to death we are altering the ecosystem by keeping it alive - especially if it is an important, high-level predator like a fox that is incapable of leaving an area once food becomes scarce like a bird. Any animal, bird or mammal, continues to have an impact on their environment even if they are being fed by humans, which is one of the strongest points against feeding any sort of wildlife.

What now? Here are the main points of the mess of words above:

·      Birds do not require humans to feed them.
·      Feeding birds is purely for personal gain.
·      Feeding birds can kill birds by exposing them to disease and predators.
·      Feeding birds likely does not impact bird populations.
·      Feeding birds likely impacts the local ecosystem.
·      Feeding birds causes them to become human-habituated.
·      Habituated birds can be at a higher level of risk from human-related threats such as roads.
·      Habituated birds draw human pressure away from birds of the same species elsewhere.
·      Habituated birds remain capable of natural behavior such as hunting and migration.
·      There are methods of feeding birds that cause obvious visible stress to birds.
·      There are people who feed birds irresponsibly without concern for their welfare.
·      There are people who feed birds responsibly and care for their welfare.
·      Feeding live animals to birds may be seen as unethical or immoral.
·      Feeding mammals is different from feeding birds due to their ecological differences.

Some of the points I have stated above have support from scientific papers, which I have tried my best to reference in my post. You will see a lot of "likely" and "possibly" in my post as well, because there may not be ample scientific data about whatever I said and I am making an assumption based on what I've seen and read, and I am not afraid to admit that. Largely, this issue is one about personal opinion - at least for now.

A lot of people believe that birds should see as little human interference with their lives as possible. It is a noble concept, but one that I believe is not possible. Birds and people are forced to interact every single day, largely because our incredibly successful species is encroaching on the habitats of the creatures we know and love, many times to their detriment. Birds need all the love that they can get as they are forced closer and closer to humans.

In Europe, most birds are deathly afraid of people. I have never seen a bird in North America react in such a negative way to a human's approach. A Stonechat that I was attempting to photograph in Spain appeared terrified and flew off without stopping at our approach. A buzzard sitting on a post flew off into the distance as our vehicle approached. These are birds that have been persecuted by people for literally hundreds of years - songbirds as food, raptors as pests. They are birds that see a person, and in their brain they associate people directly with death. Our North American birds are much more trusting of people, which warms the heart. A Black-and-white Warbler at Pelee does not fear that it will be mistnetted and its throat slit with shaving razor to become a delicacy in a Cypriot street market. A goshawk in Huntsville does not fear that it will be trapped and bludgeoned to death because it eats grouse. Birds here tend not to associate humans directly with death, but these are real threats birds face in other parts of the world.

Surprisingly, Snowy Owls are one of the most persecuted owls in North America. In British Columbia (Campbell and Preston 2009), 177 Snowy Owl deaths were separated into 24 categories. Of these, shooting accounted for 25% of all deaths. A full quarter of the deceased birds were killed by people who wanted them dead.

I think it's fair to say that people do not wish harm upon birds when they are feeding them. There are some people that do not care for the welfare of the birds to obtain personal gain, and use feeding birds to exploit them - baiting owls at a busy road using fake mice, covering bird feeder ports etc. These are the same people that flush roosting owls, play recordings for extended periods of time, and do other activities that have been proven to be detrimental to birds. It is these people, and not the action of feeding the birds, that are the problem.

It is our duty as ethical birders and photographers to continue to learn and educate others about how feeding, watching and photographing birds affects them and their environment. I firmly believe that feeding birds of any species when done correctly is a major benefit to individual birds and bird populations - because it can create voters than will vote against turning bird habitat into parking lots and strip malls.

In Finland, where owl workshops that include baiting are very common, situated in very remote areas and show the utmost respect for the birds, with the tour companies also providing nesting boxes for the owls in question during spring and summer, show that feeding owls can, when done correctly, be very positive for the birds. In many places in Europe, a license is necessary to photograph certain species. Finland's wildlife tourism industry is growing rapidly - and showing that boreal forest are worth more when they are standing rather than when they are toilet paper. This is the exact same habitat that is near and dear to my heart here in Ontario and all of Canada.

I realize that opinions on feeding birds vary greatly. My goal was to provide a research-based personal opinion on the matter. If you disagree, I respect your opinion and our common goal of striving to achieve what is best for our avifauna.


Lev Frid


One of the many Lammergeiers that Amanda and I photographed from a hide in an national park in Catalonia, after both obtaining permits from the Spanish government to feed and photograph this incredible bird that was once on the brink of extinction in Europe due to human impact, and now slowly recovering thanks to supplementary feeding and education programs.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring as Scheduled

It's that time of year again to come out of hiding and look for some spring birds. As much as I enjoyed having a "real" winter for the first time in a few years, it's nice to get out when there's a little bit more action - birds and otherwise.

It's very nice to see things appear slowly and deliberately like they're supposed to. This year, the Horned Larks arrived when it was still very cold and there was little other songbird movement. The prairie subspecies praticola is one of the first songbird migrants in Ontario.

In Algonquin, this Spring was not exceptional. I went there two weeks ago to check it out, and the harbingers are arriving as per schedule. Here, the first bird of Spring is the American Crow.

It was still bitterly cold and there was over 40 cm of snow, but Purple Finches had started to sing.

Black-backed Woodpecker was busy excavating a cavity (which he may or may not use as a nest later).

Kyle and I went to Pelee to look for some other "classic" early spring birds. One of my favorite things is seeing birds actively migrating, and because Pelee can only hold so many resident birds and the breeding diversity is not high, I can rightfully assume that most birds I see at certain locales in Pelee are migrants.

We had to stop on the side of the road to look at this lovely couple:

Red-tailed Hawks, like many raptors, are sexually dimorphic and the females are generally larger than males. These two were sitting right beside each other, and one can take an educated guess that the larger bird to the left is the female. Red-tails sitting side-by-side is another classic Spring sight.

As we got into the park itself we pulled over to look at some Snowdrops that were poking out of the disappearing layer of snow.

Birds were definitely moving. Many Ring-billed and Herring Gulls were moving North from the Tip. Handfuls of Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures went by, as well as single Red-shouldered, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

There was some yelling and flailing when this Glaucous Gull went over.

We headed down to the Onion Fields later in the day to look for puddle ducks. Nothing beats seeing hundreds of almost a dozen species of ducks crammed into tiny little pools in the fields. It's an explosion of color and activity, and another timeless classic early spring event in birding. We found a/the Eurasian Wigeon with the masses.

Our next stop was Hillman Marsh, where we were treated to a Ross's Goose and hundreds of Tundra Swans - another one of the highlight sights and sounds of March in Ontario.

And interior! The real Canada Geese.

It was good to be able to finally see some change taking place. After being to Pelee earlier this January, it was evident that life indeed was on its way back North.

Another exciting bit of news is that I'll finally be down at Pelee for a good bit of the spring migration. Usually I'm up in Algonquin in May - an equally dynamic place to observe the Spring migration (but a little... you know, slower and with less Kentucky Warblers) but this year, Murray Shields and I are renting a house down near Wheatley and I'm leading guided trips out of there every day from May 2 - 12. It's a wide length of time and should produce a wide spectrum of birds, a little bit more than the "Yellow-rumped Warbler this week, Chestnut-sided Warbler next week" deal that I'm used to up North.

And the best part is, you can join too! It's a tad difficult getting a place to stay down there during migration (ask any seasoned veteran that books these things months in advance) but we still have a couple of spaces left - plus you get to hang out and see birds with a like-minded group of people. Plus I don't come with a Comfort Inn room booking. All the juicy deets are listed on this page here: http://www.meetup.com/Toronto-Nature-Lovers/events/171848832/

 But you don't have to be a member to join us, just let me know by e-mail and I'll see if we have space.

Enjoy your Spring ladies and gentlemen! I'm going to see if I can dig up some more birds!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Little Red Riding Wolf

I was on the road to the sea, helping my friends Brian and Kate of Seabirding spot on some of their trips off the Outer Banks.

I took my sweet time getting there and on the Friday evening had some time to kill, so I decided to head on over to Alligator River to look at Short-eared Owls. Alligator River is a 154'000 acres of everything from cypress swamp to peat bogs, open fields and high and low pocosin habitat. It's a beautiful place and protects several federally endangered species of flora and fauna. It's also one of the only places on the Eastern seaboard to see Black Bears. In short, it's a pretty cool spot.

I parked my car along some fields where the birds were hanging out and I climbed on top of it (couldn't do this with the Altima!) to get a better view. There were several harriers tacking around in the fields, and some patience was necessary to wait out the owls.

The sun set and in the twilight shapes began to appear from the pine plantation bordering the field. The harriers were still out and very quickly these new birds engaged the harriers and gave them some hell before they disappeared to roost. These were Short-eared Owls.

There were a few birders along the road but they all left shortly after the owls appeared. I figured I hadn't anything better to do, and I don't see these things very often so I stayed to enjoy the show. Eventually there were about a half-dozen birds coursing the fields. A pair of Great Horned Owls started singing behind the car and a Woodcock flew to the roadside about ten feet away and started peenting. It was also a balmy 13C. Beautiful evening.

I noticed some movement from out in the field and notice a reddish canid running around out there. I dismissed it as a fox initially until it was joined by something bigger - and that had a radio telemetry collar. I think I yelled some expletives and the dogs disappeared for about ten minutes and appeared again - they were Red Wolves!! 

Red Wolves are the epitome of "something you don't see very often". Indeed, with only around 100 animals in the wild, that chance is pretty slim. So I had a reason to be very, very excited.

I had briefly seen a Red Wolf last year in close to the same spot, however these two, later joined by a third, were putting on a show, with a glorious pink full moon rising behind them like in some sort of movie. They were hunting small mammals in the same manner that a fox does, leaping into the air several times in succession. I even managed a short video of it -


 I watched these wolves for about forty-five minutes until it literally got too dark to see. Then I got into the car and drove over to the Patteson house, playing loud music and yelling until I got there from the disbelief of what just happened.

Red Wolves are, in many ways, very different from the Gray Wolves we are used to seeing on TV from Yellowstone. They are a smaller, slighter animal adapted to surviving in more humid climates and hunting smaller prey, and while Gray Wolves can be white, gray or black, almost all Red Wolves with the exception of rare melanistic individuals, are one color.

(Captive animal - courtesy of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, USFWS)

A warm brown with noticeable cinnamon tones on the legs and behind the ears, a darker back and tail and a white throat patch.

In fact, they look quite similar to another species of wolf found in Canada.

The Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon) of Algonquin Park and surrounding area of Ontario. 

In fact, at one point it was thought that the two were conspecific, but recent work (Chambers et. al. 2012) seems to show that the two are, in fact, separate species, likely derived from a coyote-like ancestor rather than Gray Wolves. Both had large historic ranges, with Red Wolves occupying most of the southeastern United States and Eastern Wolves in Eastern Canada including the Maritime provinces and down through the north Appalachians. The Eastern Wolves are a tad better off than their cousins in the South, however, as much of the historic range of the Red Wolf is now quite densely inhabited by people, and as we all know, people and wolves don't get along.

This is a shame, because even more so than the purported "big, bad" Gray Wolves, Red Wolves are very shy and unassuming animals that very few people, even researchers, ever have the pleasure to see. They're barely bigger than coyotes and unlike that species do poorly under the shadow of civilization and stay very far away from humanity. It is likely that if property owners and governors hamper the re-introduction efforts to support the tiny experimental population of these animals, they will be the responsible for the extinction of an anecdotal terror that none of them will have actually seen in the flesh to begin with. I, for one, am counting my lucky stars.