It's always exciting when we have a Snowy Owl irruption and many come south to visit us. But how can you enjoy watching and photographing Snowy Owls without stressing them, since some will be in less-than ideal body condition when they arrive? Here are some tips:
1.Give them space! It’s hard to give an exact distance to stay away from owls since every bird and every situation is unique. Err on the side of caution. If the bird is staring at you, you’re too close. If it stands up straight and quickly starts looking around like it might fly, you’re too close. If it flies as you approach, you were DEFINITELY too close. Don’t go closer just because other people are closer than they should be. Stay back and set a good example.
Your goal is to have the owl ignore you. Be the person who got a mediocre photo because you didn’t get too close rather than someone who bumped it to fly to get a pretty picture to post on Facebook. Snowy Owls are normally trying to sleep during the day. Let them. Go out at dusk if you want to see them fly and get active.
2.Let them find their own food. Do not offer mice or other prey for them to eat. Owls are opportunistic, and they will take an easy meal. They also learn where easy meals come from quickly and some will start to follow people looking for a handout if they are repeatedly fed. This is dangerous, as they often get hit by cars. If an owl is starving, feeding it can actually kill it since starving birds are usually dehydrated and their digestive tracts are shutting down.
If you find a Snowy Owl in need of help, contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center.
3.Respect private property, fences, and signs. This should go without saying, but many otherwise rational and respectful people do dumb things when something cool like a Snowy Owl is involved. Keep in mind that most farm fields are private property, so stay on the public roadway or other public land and do not enter fields.
4.Think about if it’s safe to share the location of a Snowy Owl publicly. Will the bird be mobbed by photographers and other people? Is it likely people will trespass on private property to see it? Or damage vegetation? Will it cause traffic or parking issues?
5.Avoid flash photography and flashlights as it gets darker. A fill flash during the day at a distance is OK, but a flash to their eyes as they are adapting to the darkness will impact their vision for several minutes. Snowy Owls are more visual hunters than most other owls.
6.Leave your dog at home. Owls do not like dogs.
7.Move at a slower than normal pace and keep your voice down when you are close. Owls don’t like quick movements or sudden loud noises, so be sure that children are given good direction before they go to see an owl. Yes, Snowy Owls do hang out at airports with very loud jets taking off and landing nearby, but planes on runways are more predictable than young children (or adults!) running around and shouting. Remember, the goal is to minimize stress to the owl.
8.When safe to do so, view the owl from inside your car, using the car as a blind.
9. Be respectful of other people. You aren't the only person who wants to see or photograph the owl. Make sure others are able to see, let other people look through your spotting scope or binoculars, and keep roads open for normal traffic flow. If someone else is behaving inappropriately, respectfully and calmly address the issue. If the person rejects your concerns, don't further engage them or escalate the situation since you are not the owl police. Verbally thank others who are behaving respectfully and leave if you are uncomfortable with the situation. Contact the local police or conservation officer if someone is doing something illegal or blatantly harassing the owl.
10. Use traps instead of poison to control rodents if you have a Snowy Owl (or other owl) hanging out near your property. Mice and rats that have eaten poison don't die for 4-5 days and often leave buildings in search of water since they are thirsty from bleeding internally. These dying rodents are easy prey, and owls that eat them will be poisoned also. There are a wide variety of traps available: snap traps, battery powered zap traps, homemade bucket traps and more. Avoid glue traps, as all kinds of animals can wind up hopelessly stuck to them.