Sunday Nature Walk: The Controversies Behind the Snowy Owl

Every year, the quick change in temperature that occurs from November to December creates a frenzy for many different species. Mammals hastily fill their food caches, songbirds migrate south for the winter, and many reptiles and amphibians enter some form of hibernation or deep sleep. While New England experiences some harsh winter conditions, far more frigid temperatures occur farther north. These winter conditions, coupled with the lack of food, can bring tundra birds from their Canadian environments to as far south as New Jersey, one being the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus).

The relationship between snowy owls and humans has been rocky to say the least. Being such a beautiful and charismatic bird has resulted in it being heavily sought after by birders and photographers. Many incidents in years past have caused outcries from environmental organizations and nonprofits. One incident in Massachusetts resulted in photographers “chasing” an owl and even trying to make it fly. Last year, a major disagreement between birders and photographers over a snowy owl caused major controversy in the birding community and created lasting tension for the remainder of the winter season.

Snowy owls can often be observed on the ground in environments that best mimic their habitats from up north. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Many people blame the photographers as it is often overeager individuals who will creep up too close to the birds in order to get the “money shot.” I have personally seen photographers clap, yell or walk up to the owl to attempt to catch its attention or get a better picture. But why do these actions affect these large and rugged birds of prey?

Raptors and owls spend a lot of energy searching and capturing prey. Each movement and even extra stress can cause calories to be used in the bird’s metabolism. Calories spent result in less energy available for hunting. This means the bird may have a harder time successfully catching prey, which can lead to starvation. Scientific authorities such as the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Connecticut Audubon Society and the National Audubon Society unanimously agree that human-caused stress on snowy owls is something needs to be addressed.

An “owl paparazzi” group lined up to photograph an owl in Connecticut. This particular group was civil and respectful to the bird. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Indeed there are two sides to the story. The data website eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a heavily used app by many birders. Users are able to submit birding data onto this website that can be publicly viewed from anywhere in the world. That means if someone wanted to, they could see all of the sightings on snowy owls across the entire country as well as the date, location, and details on how it was found.

There have been workarounds for this problem with other species. The great gray owl (Strix nebulosa), another sensitive and sought-after bird, had its eBird settings adjusted so that birders could submit the data, but the location and date are only viewable for scientists. Many argue that the same should be done for the snowy owls as well.

Stefan Martin a habitat steward at the Connecticut Audubon Society, states that solving the issue is not as simple as defining viewing parameters for the birds. “It’s not a black or white issue, it is really dependent on the bird and you have to know what behaviors to look for, ” Martin said. “Just because you can get close doesn’t mean you need to.” Bright-eyed, alert birds with head bobbing and movement can be signs of stress for an owl in the middle of the day, he said.

A great gray owl rests on a spruce tree in Minnesota. – Tomas Koeck Photo

Indeed, the snowy owl debate can be disheartening, since something that seems so pure such as birding has been muddied by the actions of a few. The good news is recently I have been happy to see the spread of information throughout the birding and photographer community on how to properly view these owls and have seen the effects out in the field. As with most problems and controversies, the most powerful tool to improve the atmosphere is education and the spread of positive advocacy.

Martin concludes that because the snowy owl is accessible “everyone wants to look at it, which could in turn spark the next conservationist. At the same time we want people to be aware of what is best for the bird and how our actions can affect the bird’s well-being.” 

Easton has an abundant habitat that supports a large variety of wildlife. Keep an eye out for amazing creatures on your next walk in the woods, coastline or stream side. For those who don’t know where to start, Easton and the region contain a wide variety of natural areas. Explore some of the trails to find wildlife through the Aspetuck Land Trust, or explore trails throughout the state at Connecticut Woodlands.

For more nature photos, fun facts, and environmental entries, you might like to follow my nature photography Instagram.

Tomas Koeck
Tomas Koeck

Currently, Tomas is working on a film with Sacred Heart SCMA and Canon USA while studying for his bachelor’s degree from the School of Communication, Media & the Arts at Sacred Heart University. He has worked on several stories with the non-profit Vision Project and is on the Easton Courier’s news team. He has been published in the National Audubon Society, PBS Nature, Smithsonian Channel, Connecticut Audubon Society, Tamron Optics, ESPN, the Connecticut Post,  the Easton Courier, the Pulse, the Spectrum and many other outlets. He also maintains collaborations with the National Audubon Society, the Loon Preservation Committee, the Boreal Conservation Committee and has partnerships or sponsorships with TAMRON Optics USA, Canon USA, Milford Photo, and the Undergraduate Research Institute. He is endorsed by the Connecticut Audubon as an ethical wildlife photographer. ​

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