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Ethical birding: What you can do

There are many ways to enjoy our friends of flight while not disrupting their habitat and keeping them safe
Aug-BarredOwl-JenRitchie (1) 2
Barred Owl on Bowen Island

The owl noted in last week’s Undercurrent is truly a special treat. I must admit, it’s a life-lister for me and it is in my own backyard! While this area is outside the normal range for this species, recent sightings of this species include New Westminster and Vancouver Island. All of which has spurred excitement in the birding community. The theory is that these owls are most likely displaced from their usual territories by the habitat destruction from the extensive wildfires that took place last year.  

It’s important to note that this is a sensitive time of year for this species due to its recent journey and the scarcity of food, not to mention it is learning to survive in this new area; finding new roosts, hunting grounds, and other things owls need to make a living. We are truly lucky that this bird has decided to set itself up here.   

Owl watching is very popular in British Columbia and owls are often a prime subject for nature photographers. However, owls can be overwhelmed with too much attention; they will either flush when approached too closely, or some birds may “freeze” in place. These behaviours may cause the bird to waste energy they need for hunting and staying warm. While a single incident may not be life-threatening, the cumulative effect of repeated disturbances, which are likely to occur when an owl perches in highly visible, public locations, along with interrupted sleep patterns and interrupted hunting success, reduce the likelihood that the bird will survive. It’s important to keep in mind that most birds, including this owl, are protected federally (Migratory Bird Act) and provincially (Wildlife Act).

If you go out to enjoy the owl, here are some things you can do to reduce the potential impacts to the owl: 

Watch from your car if possible, an automobile makes an excellent blind.

Don’t approach the owl too closely. Signs of distress the owl may exhibit include “puffing up” its feathers, making themselves skinny to try to blend into the surroundings, pacing, “grimacing”, flying/fleeing from its location, leaving its prey, being aggressive or even hunching into a protective, aggressive or pre-flight stance. Ideally, when a bird starts staring at you, you’re too close – it’s time to back up.  

Never advance on birds with the intention of making them fly. This disrupts the natural processes such as resting, foraging, or hunting, and causes them to expend energy unnecessarily.  

Dogs should be kept on leash. This species hunts by landing on its prey on the ground. The owl holds the prey in its talons on the ground until no movement is felt, then the bird carries it to a nearby roost for consumption. During the time the owl is on the ground it is vulnerable to being chased (and potentially caught) by off-leash dogs.  

Much of the area is private property. Be respectful of private property, tread lightly and stay on trails. 

If you see others not being respectful during their owl watching activities, please have the courage to advocate for this owl. Sometimes all it takes is sharing education to elicit cooperation (feel free to share this article with them). If you see grave contradictions to the recommendations here, a call to the Wildlife Conservation Officer (1-877-952-7277) or RCMP non-emergency line (604-947-0516) may be warranted.  

Before sharing the location on social media or with friends, think carefully about the potential impacts to the birds or their habitats, both individual and cumulative. Remember to remove the GPS data from images and videos. 

For those interested, wildlife photography ethics are available at both or the Audubon’s guide to ethical bird photography and videography.

Thank you in advance for being a great owl supporter; I look forward to comparing our sightings and notes on observed behaviours.

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