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West End News: February 16

Ethical owl photo
Ethical owl photo

What do birders and Harry Potter fans have in common? Both are delighted with the irruption of owls we are experiencing this winter. Every several years, the conditions align in such a way that the elusive owls are seen with some regularity along the backroads, and even in backyards, of the West End. I’ve seen residents and visitors alike posting pictures of Great Gray, Barred, Saw-Whet and even Snowy owls so far this year.

These photographs are being taken and shared by amateurs and professionals. Irruptions of owls create an opportunity for everyone to observe these magnificent birds in their natural habitat and perhaps even capture a great picture. This has given rise to a great ethical debate. That is, is it ethical to bait owls in order to get an action shot?

Baiting owls is the practice of releasing mice, often purchased from a pet store, in the vicinity of an owl. The owl, rendered almost helpless by instinct, will pounce on the mouse, giving photographers the money shot. Owl baiting is not illegal in Minnesota. What is illegal, is releasing an animal (in this case a mouse) in a State Park, State Forest, or Wildlife Management Area.

Here is the debate. Some owl baiters are professional photographers under pressure to get the much sought after action shots. Some will only offer an owl a few mice, on infrequent occasions, away from roads. Others argue that owls are starving, so feeding them mice is actually doing them a favor.

The other side points out that baiting owls often does much more harm than any potential good. From a photography standpoint, selling pictures of baited owls is not the same as capturing an owl hunting naturally in the wild. These staged photos are tantamount to fakes to many photographers. More importantly, the practice of feeding a wild animal is harmful to the owl. First, there is the problem of introducing pet store mice to these wild raptors, there is no guarantee that the mice are disease free. Second, the owls quickly become habituated to people. This is why owl baiting is different from feeding birds at your bird feeder, those birds retain their sense of self-preservation. Habituated owls are also more likely to be hit by cars, once they are accustomed to being fed by people near roads and vehicles. Third, feeding owls changes their wild behavior. Routine access to an easy food source can have a detrimental effect on owls’ hunting behavior and even their migratory patterns.

I invite you to draw your own conclusions about the practice of baiting. Personally, I will be more aware of a photographer’s ethical practices before hitting the ‘like’ button, or purchasing a print.

By popular demand, Birch Grove School is now selling spiritwear. Now you too can rep your favorite West End school with a cool blue shirt sporting the Birch Grove logo. Adult and kids T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, and beanies are all available. The online store is only open until February 28, so be sure to place your order before then. A link to the online store is included the West End News text on the wtip.org website here.

We were happy to return to so much new snow after our trip to Paris. We were even happier that Bill and a few friends pitched in to shovel all that snow off our roofs while we were away, now that’s a good house-sitter! While in Paris, we visited the Le Marais neighborhood. Le Marais is full of unique and forward thinking concept shops. While window shopping we saw three different Minnesota companies being featured. That’s right, the fashionistas in Paris are wearing Red Wing boots and Minnetonka Moccasins! We also spotted some Epicurean kitchen utensils in the famous concept store Merci. It appears Le Marais and Grand Marais have more in common than one would expect.

For WTIP, I’m Clare Shirley with the West End News.

(Photo by Danielle Fortin)

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