Earlier this winter, photographer Michael Furtman was driving along the North Shore of Lake Superior in search of great gray owls. Several of the giant, elusive birds had flown down from Canada looking for food.
He pulled off on a dirt road where he had seen an owl the night before. An owl was there, perched in a spruce tree, but a pair of videographers were filming it.
“I backed off; I was going to just let them have their time with the bird,” Furtman says. “And then I saw them run out and put a mouse on the snow.”
Predictably, the hungry owl dove, in front of the camera, snatching an easy meal. Furtman says he was so angry that he got in his car and drove away. But he soon returned to confront them and filmed the encounter on his phone. He later posted the video on Facebook.
“There are a lot of people who would like to photograph this bird hunting,” he said to the videographers through his car window. “And it’s not going to hunt the rest of the day after you stuff it to the gills.”
One responded saying, “We understand … but we’re not hurting this bird in any way, shape or form. Absolutely not. Maybe we’re hurting the photographers, and I’m sorry if that’s the way people feel.”
Those opposed to feeding say it’s unethical and doesn’t capture owls behaving naturally. Furtman has made it his mission to fight the practice, confronting people and outing them when they post baited photographs online.
James Duncan, a Canadian biologist and an owl expert who directs Manitoba’s wildlife and fisheries branch, says the main concern is it can habituate owls to humans.
“You’re essentially training the owl to lose its fear of humans and associate food with humans, so then they become bolder,” Duncan says.
He says this bolder behavior can increase the chances of the owls getting hit by cars.
Others say there’s a lack of evidence showing that owls are being harmed by these staged, human interactions.
“It’s a nasty battle, but as far as I know, there’s no data to back up any of the negative,” says Terry Crayne, a longtime hobby wildlife photographer in northern Minnesota.
Crayne admits he uses mice to entice owls for his photos.
“Most of the people I know who are against feeding owls are actually feeding deer,” Crayne says. “The deer are associating humans with food. So which is worse? In my mind, if you’re against feeding one animal, you should be against feeding them all.”
Photographers in Minnesota say they began to see widespread owl feeding about a dozen years ago. Furtman says he even tried it, but quickly soured on the practice. Still, it worked.
“I mean I have to admit, it’s really cool to watch an owl fly in and grab something,” Furtman says. “How often do you get to see a predator pounce on prey?”
Advances in digital cameras have attracted a lot more people into wildlife photography. And that has increased the conflicts around owl feeding.
Several magazines and photo contests now reject baited shots of owls and other predators, including National Wildlife magazine, where Lisa Moore is editorial director.
“It’s unnatural behavior and it devalues the hard work of ethical wildlife photographers who are out there taking the time in the field to wait for that shot,” Moore says.
She says her magazine’s goal is to feature ethical, authentic photos — not of wildlife in a game farm, or lured with bait.