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Out & About: Photographer calls owl baiting unethical fakery

Tue., Feb. 28, 2017, 6:30 a.m.

In this file photo, a great gray owl, which has a range from Canada to parts of the northern United States, dives after prey beneath snow in a field on the outskirts of Ottawa, Canada, Jan. 30, 2005. (JONATHAN HAYWARD / Associated Press)
In this file photo, a great gray owl, which has a range from Canada to parts of the northern United States, dives after prey beneath snow in a field on the outskirts of Ottawa, Canada, Jan. 30, 2005. (JONATHAN HAYWARD / Associated Press)

OUTLURED – A Minnesota wildlife photographer is leading an effort to curb the practice of baiting wintering owls in order to get photos or video of birds as they “hunt.”

Sightings of great gray owls are widely posted in birding networks and quickly draw groups of people wanting the perfect action image of the elegant hunters.

Many of the owls that attract attention, including snowy owls, have flown south of the U.S. border from Canada for the winter and can become habituated if fed, Michael Furtman says. That threatens the birds and debases the sport of birding.

Baiters use live mice or even fake mice to attract an owl to attack the bait and flare. “It’s a practice that has been increasing by leaps and bounds since digital cameras and social media came on the scene,” Furtman told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

“Some pros have done it forever, but in limited numbers. Now there are a lot of amateurs with digital cameras, and they want to get the same photos they see online or in magazines,” he said.

Furtman considers baiting beyond unethical. “I consider it fakery,” he said, suggesting that taking a photo of an animal that a photographer tricks into performing for the camera is like telling a lie.

Baiting is different than photographing birds at a home feeder, he said. “Birds in those situations vanish if you walk out of your house. They retain all sense of self-preservation. And they don’t associate the homeowner with food.”

Bating, over time, can render an owl helpless, Furtman says. “Baited owls become habituated and will approach people for food.”

Owls that approach people are flirting with danger, he said. Flying in to look for a handout could be perceived as an attack. Baiting also could make them more vulnerable to vehicle collisions.

A lot of the mice used for baiting are feeder mice, “and some are infected with salmonella, which wild owls have no resistance to,” he said.

Furtman has been trolling through social media for posts by photographers he’s seen baiting owls and calling them out.

“It’s not authentic,” he said. “Great gray owls are plunge hunters. They don’t fly in toward prey with their talons down. Almost all photos you see like that are fake. But they are passed off as real.”

There’s no law against baiting owls for the camera, he said, but there should be.



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