Ethics

Why Baiting Owls Is Not the Same as Feeding Backyard Birds

Some people question the difference between the two. There is a distinction—and the lives of birds depend on it.

Is there a difference between feeding backyard birds and baiting owls? Or is the word “baiting” unfairly pejorative when it simply means giving live food to owls?

For the past three decades, I’ve lived in Duluth, Minnesota, not far from the famous Sax-Zim Bog where birders and photographers like me gravitate in winter to feast our eyes and optics on northern owls. For two of those decades, I was licensed by the state and federal government as a wildlife rehabber. I’ve held in my hands many of these avian treasures, releasing ones that recovered and mourning ones that didn’t. So I have a visceral awareness of how vulnerable owls and other birds are to some practices that seem innocuous or even beneficial—and baiting is certainly one of them.

The Case for Feeding

Feeding backyard birds has been a tradition in America since the days of Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau. In the 1800s, it involved little more than tossing breadcrumbs out; by 2014, bird feeding was a $6.3 billion industry involving seed, suet, sugar water, fruit, and even mealworms.

With more than 5 million households feeding birds, researchers involved in projects such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, along with hummingbird and bluebird conservationists, have amassed a huge body of data establishing the value of bird feeding, both for the people who enjoy backyard birds and for the birds visiting feeders. Researchers also have amassed data about how bird feeding, done incorrectly, harms birds. For generations, Audubon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and other organizations have been using this information to educate people about best practices so their bird feeders can be as beneficial for birds as they are for us. 

While most people don't associate bird feeders with live food, some feeders do dispense wriggling meals in the form of mealworms. They are an important source of protein for bluebirds, and research has shown feeding to be beneficial. Careful data collection by people running bluebird trails affirmed that during harsh springs, bluebird survival improved with artificial feeding—an important consideration in efforts to restore bluebird numbers to historical highs. These bluebird aficionados developed feeders designed for small cavity-dwellers, and like birds visiting traditional bird feeders and feeding stations, bluebirds learned to associate the feeders, not people, with their meals.

From the start, bluebird conservationists also publicized the dangers of letting bluebirds eat too many mealworms. Virtually every conservation groups’ fact sheets and webpages about bluebird feeding include prominent caveats to ensure that people stay focused on benefiting the birds above their own pleasure and photo-ops.  

The Case Against Baiting

Two other groups regularly provide live meals for birds: Owl researchers and photographers. But setting out live or dead rodents to lure owls differs from traditional bird feeding in a fundamental way. With the latter, it’s the feeding station and birds already present that attract new birds, not the humans providing the food. There is no rodent dispenser that owls can visit whenever they want. As intelligent, adaptable predators, owls lured by mice learn to associate people with food.

Short-eared Owl. Photo: Sandra and Frank Horvath/Great Backyard Bird Count

Researchers have always called their practice of offering mice to owls “baiting.” As with setting mousetraps, baiting hooks to lure fish, and other uses of the term, baiting attracts an animal for an immediate purpose. Scientists and rehabbers bait owls for banding, relocating away from airports and other dangerous sites, and rehabilitation of injured birds. Baiting is the safest way to lure an owl for these purposes, and even if it gets the reward of a meal, the process of being trapped and handled is a negative experience, making that bird less, not more, likely to approach people in the future. Photography, on the other hand, creates a positive association with bait and so habituates birds to a situation that can be harmful. 

When I was the only licensed rehabber in my area, I was the person called when someone came across an injured or emaciated owl. These birds were often found near the very intersections where birders had reported owl sightings; via the birding grapevine, I knew that some guides and photographers tossed the birds mice to bring them closer. In two cases, the people bringing me a Great Gray Owl told me that it had flown directly toward them the moment they got out of their car and was hit by an approaching vehicle—clear evidence that the birds seemed to expect a meal. Even when photographers conscientiously bait far from roadsides, if an owl learns to associate their presence with food, it will be drawn to roads as that’s where people are most often found. 

As long as the techniques and goals of owl baiting remain so different from those of backyard bird feeding, calling it the name given to it by the owl banders who developed the procedure is both logical and fair. “Baiting” it is.

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