A pair of owl species in Weaselhead Park have drawn crowds of onlookers — with accounts of some admirers crossing boundaries to get a better photograph or glimpse.
While these owls are giving people a chance to experience nature at a time when many other activities are restricted, these behaviours raise questions about the ethics of wildlife viewing, both in person and online.
These questions are highlighted with reports of some owls looking stressed and even a dead saw-whet owl recently being found in the park.
Since late February, two small owl species, the boreal owl and northern saw-whet owl, residing in Weaselhead Natural Area, have gained notoriety on social media.
Part of their popularity is due to owls having an intrinsic appeal, said Chris Fisher, professional biologist, science communicator and author of Birds of Alberta.
“With forward facing eyes and little ears, they have this anthropomorphic cuteness about them,” he said.
Owls always prove popular on social media, making people jump at opportunities to photograph them.
“Even if the photo is inferior or the experience is not unique, owls just get more clicks,” said Fisher.
But the boreal owl is particularly exciting for birdwatchers. They are rarer and typically found in more northerly or mountainous parts of Alberta. For many, this was a chance to gain a “lifer.”
It’s a term in the birdwatching community meaning a species seen for the first time, right in the middle of Calgary.
At first, the photos were confined to bird circles
The sighting of the boreal owl, reported in late February, first stayed within bird circles.
Then an image of the owl was posted online, including to a Facebook group boasting more than 33,000 members. While this group doesn’t permit specific locations of sightings to be posted, word got out.
People started learning of its location through other online means, including WhatsApp and eBird, a citizen-science smartphone app for logging bird sightings.
Dozens of photos of the owl have since been posted to the group. Many have hundreds of likes and engagements. Around the same time, photographs of the miniscule but massively adorable northern saw-whet owl — also taken in Weaselhead — began circulating online.
People then started visiting the park in droves for a chance to see or photograph these endearing owls.
“The Saturday morning is when it seemed to blow up,” said Kirsty Diamond, a Calgary birder.
Too close for comfort
This attention may have come at a cost.
Many, if not most, people visiting the owls have done so with respect and concern for their well being. But there have been accounts of questionable behaviour by some onlookers potentially harmful to the owls.
Nathaniel Schmidt, an Alberta Wilderness Association board member who visits the park two to four times a week, said he came across a large group of people gathering around an owl in the park on Feb. 28.
“As somebody that birdwatches myself, I just take the picture and get out of there and leave them alone,” he said.
“These people were just crowding the animal. That’s definitely disruptive to the animal. They don’t need a bunch of people around them for long periods of time when they are trying to survive.”
Diamond, who has been birding for about a year, visited the park on March 2 to see a saw-whet owl. She came across where a saw-whet owl was perched sleeping, with a group of 10 to 15 people around it. One person was intentionally talking loudly to it, said Diamond.
“She was saying things like, ‘come on, open your eyes’ and ‘I want a picture of your beautiful eyes,’” she said.
“It was very obvious what she was doing — she was trying to wake it up.”
Group gathered around a saw-whet owl
Ethan Denton, 17, has been a birdwatcher since he was five. Denton said he was walking on a path in Weaselhead when he came across a group of people around a saw-whet owl.
“This poor owl — it was sitting right next to the path trying to roost in this bush and there was a big group of photographers gathered right next to it,” he said.
“I just told everyone to just be considerate.”
Onlookers have also been chasing these nocturnal birds during the day from perch to perch, trying to get a better photo, said Sarah Neville, executive director of the Weaselhead Preservation Society.
“They go as close as they can to get photographs and they keep going closer and closer until the bird flies away,” she said.
“They want to get close and see it, but it’s clearly disturbing birds.”
Fisher said with more people interested in birds, any many activities sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, crowding — and the bad behaviours it brings — is inevitable.
“It’s a reality of the popularity of nature appreciation trending, but certainly more during these pandemic months,” he said.
“We’ve never seen more people wanting to go and experience nature — and of course, birds are the supermodels of nature, so they attract a lot of attention.”
Signs of stress
Some worry that these bold behaviours, particularly by photographers, have hurt the Weaselhead owls.
As the days of owl-mania went on and more photos were posted, Denton noticed the owls were increasingly showing signs of stress. One of the owls looked particularly bad.
“I could see one of them just didn’t look quite healthy to me,” he said.
Then on March 3, multiple visitors reported seeing a dead saw-whet owl in the park. There is no evidence that people’s actions directly resulted in its death. But Denton believes these behaviours by owl seekers may have contributed.
“What likely happened is people harassed it so much that it was awake all day,” he said.
“They bumped it from perch to perch to get different photos and some people shook the trees to keep the owl’s eyes open.”
Fisher said he has no information indicating anyone’s actions contributed to the animal’s death. But if the owls were being stressed by people, it came at one of the most difficult times for them.
“Pretty much all wildlife in late February and early March are food deprived — everything is struggling to meet its caloric requirements every single day.”
Some of these behaviours around the Weaselhead owls could be considered illegal. Alberta’s Wildlife Act sets clear standards against pursuing animals, Fisher explained.
“People actively disturbing or going after a species could be considered pursuing,” he said.
But rather than being a legal question, examining people’s behaviours around the owls is one of morals and ethics, he said. Fisher recommended anyone interested in viewing birds or wildlife consult published materials about birding ethics.
The American Birding Association provides a Code of Ethics. A central part of this code is to respect birds and their environment. This is done by avoiding stressing birds, exposing them to danger, being cautious around nests or other sensitive features. Also, minimizing habitat disturbance.
Birds Canada also provides tips for observing owls with respect. These recommendations include keeping distance, not disturbing roosting owls, and moving on after a few minutes. If an owl flies away, avoid following it and do not go off trail pursuing it.
Fisher also recommends confronting questionable behaviour in the field.
“To go out and adjudicate proper or less harmful behaviour is pretty easy,” he said.
“Leaders in the birding community have to step up.”
But tread lightly.
“It’s calling out someone’s character, by the point that people become very committed birdwatchers or more importantly photographers, this becomes part of how they identify,’ he said.
Appearance of a stressed bird
Another step is understanding the behaviour of the bird being viewed or photographed, said Maureen Hills-Urbat, a moderator of Alberta Birds, a birding Facebook group.
“The best thing to do really is to do your research and to try and understand the behaviour and know what a stressed bird looks like,” she said.
“If you’re changing the behaviour of the bird, you’re probably too close and interfering with it.”
Alberta Birds is now consistently posting best practices when photographing owls, mirroring the advice of Birds Canada.
Owls can be enjoyed responsibly, said Denton. “The way to do it is a balance of good judgment and finding your own owls,” he said. “It comes down to being basically a good person and treating them the way they deserve.”
But err on the side of caution. “Even if they don’t necessarily show it, they will start being distressed because they’re aware of you,” he said.
Birding ethics don’t stop when leaving the park. There are also ways to help protect wildlife when posting photos of them to social media or logging observations of them to platforms like eBird.
The most important step is to not share the location of birds or nests, said Fisher.
Beyond not allowing locations to be posted, Alberta Birds takes other steps to protect wildlife, explained Hills-Urbat.
“But we try not to remove posts and instead use them as educational if people are getting too close to an owl or an owl is looking stressed,” she said.
“Facebook is tough because we’re not the police. We can only comment and do what we think is right.”
But Fisher believes crowding would be alleviated if some groups didn’t allow owl posts or the posting of the same species per location.
“Because for many people, that is the impetus to get out and try to get more shares and likes,” he said. Some groups have already started this approach.
The eBird platform already works to protect the location of sensitive species. These include those hunted or those susceptible to targeted disturbance of nests, roosts or birds from birdwatchers or photographers. The list of eBird’s sensitive species is developed by consulting local experts. While some Alberta owls, such as great gray owl and northern hawk owl are included on this list, saw-whet and boreal owls are not.
There are ways to use and post to eBird to better protect birds’ locations, said Diamond. There is an option to hide checklists, so they do not show to other users. Another option is delaying posting checklists or sensitive species observations for a few weeks or even months, she explained. But Diamond said she will simply skip adding some owls to her list. “I don’t need to draw any extra attention to them.”
It’s about the memory
The most important part of viewing wildlife is the lasting memory of the experience, said Fisher.
“Understanding that will be to the benefit of their own experience and also to the well-being of the bird.”