[This gray morph Eastern Screech Owl responded to a whistled imitations during the 2010 Walnut Valley, NJ Christmas Bird Count. It's looking over its right shoulder, by the way, head turned about as far as an owl can go. . .photo by Don Freiday.]
Owls get a lot of attention from birders – understandably so, but sometimes it's a bit too much.
Looking for owls, looking at owls, and, especially, showing people owls is a tricky business. On the one hand, owls are fascinating and universally popular. On the other, they are vulnerable to disturbance around their roosts and nests, and even worse, are still despised by an ignorant few that might intentionally do them harm. We want people to know about, and care about, owls, but we risk having owls "loved to death."
A recent raptor workshop reinforced all this. I decided not to show participants owls at the roosts I knew about, because of the risk of disturbing the owls either during the workshop or if people returned to the roost sites after the workshop was finished (which, experience suggests, some surely would.) We nonetheless secured decent views of 3 species of owls during the workshop, mainly by watching prime areas at dusk.
The American Birding Association has its own official code of ethics, which all birders should become familiar with (available at http://www.americanbirding.org/abaethics.htm), but owls require birders to be especially thoughtful and respectful. Many years ago I scribed An Owl-seeker’s Code of Ethics, which I share with participants on owl field trips. I've gone as far as having people on field trips swear to adhere to the code, with right hand raised and left resting on their favorite field guide! It is reproduced below.
WHEREAS, owls are fascinating and valuable co-inhabitants of our planet, and
WHEREAS, owls are vulnerable to disturbance around their roosts and nests, and
WHEREAS, owls are still despised or feared by an ignorant few,
I DO HEARBY RESOLVE THAT,
I. I will whenever possible educate others about the value of owls, and explain that disturbance, shooting, habitat loss, and the use of rodenticides are severe threats to these birds. I will personally avoid causing any threat to any owl.
II. I will use extreme discretion when I look for and observe owls. Specifically, I will take great care not to flush owls from their roosts or nests, and will never touch, climb, or mutilate a tree they are using. I will maintain a respectful distance from the owl at all times. I will move slowly and quietly. If I do accidentally flush an owl, I will NOT continue to pursue it in hopes for yet a better look. I will not repeatedly visit an owl roost for yet another look, and in general will hold my visits to no more than one per month.
III. I will limit my calling for owls, especially during the nesting season. I will never use a tape recorder to call owls unless I am part of an organized owl survey.
IV. If I am lucky enough to find a roosting owl, I will use most extreme discretion about who to tell about my findings, and especially about who I take to see the bird. In general, I will not tell more than one close friend or companion, and I will INSIST that they not tell anyone else. I will seriously consider not telling anyone.
V. If someone else tells me about an owl, or shows me one, I will make sure I receive his or her specific permission to return to the bird or to tell others about it. Otherwise, I will respect that person’s find and the welfare of the owl.
VI. I will be especially cautious about giving a landowner information about owls or other birds of prey on his or her property unless I know them to be upstanding individuals.
VII. If I find an owl nest, I will immediately leave the vicinity with as little disturbance as possible and I will be especially thoughtful about whether I should return to the site at all.
VII. I will report the locations of roosts or nests of rare, threatened or endangered species to the appropriate government authority so that information can be incorporated in conservation efforts.