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The Ethics of Watching OWLS in NYC - February 2023


Northern Saw-whet Owl, Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx) Jan. 1989


16 February 2023


Bird Notes: We've added an Owl Walk to the Schedule for this coming Sunday night (meet 5:30pm/19 February) at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Details, directions in this Newsletter. We hope to find both Eastern Screech-owl and Great Horned Owl. Also, once the hoopla and worry is reduced regarding the Eurasian Eagle-owl in Central Park, we will run a night walk for that bird too.


Welcome to Winter: the nerves and delicate psyches of many NYC birders are frayed. Why? Owls of course! As we've seen every year, birder emotions are running high with owls overwintering in some NYC parks. Condemnations of bad birders, unethical birders and Bob (aka SOB, sweet old bob) can be found on the web. You would think I was shooting owls on my night walks. NYC Owls have always aroused controversy, and usually lead to some sort of social media war. We advise you to be like an owl in all of this: watch bemused from your perch, and hope that no one kills themselves in an attempt to take the moral high ground.


Going to see Owls in NYC, and then posting photos/videos has always aroused ire here as long as we can remember - since the mid-1980s at least. What has changed in the last few years is the level of ire, and condemnation of birders who are curious, want to know more...want to see an owl (wow!) and take photos etc. This interest in owls is all good - and the local conservation organizations should provide much info about NYC owls: their history...and challenges to survive in our parks (rodenticides). In others words, going to see an owl is the start of a journey to get people involved. Sadly, it is often the beginning of getting personally attacked on-line, and sometimes even in person. Yes I realize that some people want to protect owls by keeping their location/presence secret. That is 100% fine. But people going to see NYC owls are equally valid in their endeavor - the challenge for everyone is to channel the interest to more lofty ideals - and keeping behavior around a roosting owl reasonable (everyone, even the best birders, begin to talk after a while...move around for a better angle). We are all guilty. That is simply NYC where there are many curious people who act on that curiosity. One cannot escape people in NYC - that is a great strength of urban birding. Even the experts were all beginners once who did dumb things - and they learned through time what is ok to do and what not to do (eg., don't break branches to get a clear photo). The Manhattan Bird Alert (Click HERE) does a really good job of balancing people's desires to see NYC owls, and making suggestions how best to view them. We've learned this in 30+ years: Trying to keep people away from NYC Owls is like trying to stop teenagers from having sex...the best one can hope for is to encourage everyone to be on their best behavior - and how to get the best experience for you and the owls. We could write a book on this topic - what happens with NYC Owls and NYC People - on social media...in person...at meetings...and in the field - so expect a follow-up post in the coming weeks/years.


Great Horned Owl, 3o September 2021; Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx); Deborah Allen

[below] Northern Pygmy Owl in Washington State January 2019

We've come along way from this owl event in Brooklyn in 1900 observed by William Braislin MD: "The Barred Owl is rather rare on Long Island. The present record has to do with its occurrence as a bird of the city, my attention having been attracted to it by a crowd which gathered to observe unfamiliar sight of a large bird in the heart of the city, sitting with every appearance of contentment in the bare branches of a tree. The small boys, however, soon began to pelt it with stones, though it was with difficulty that the bird could be made to fly, and even the presence of a policeman had little effect in restraining them. In spite of much persecution the bird remained in the vicinity for several days more, but the commotion and excitement produced by his presence led to his premature end. Various missiles aimed at the Owl by the crowd during the day became a menace to the windows and heads and led the householders to consider the bird a rather unwelcome visitor. The owl was accordingly shot and afterward fell into my possession. The contents of the stomach, as well as beak and claws, bore testimony to the havoc which he had made the preceding night among the English Sparrows."

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Rather than try and defend what we do on our bird walks to see owls, we've called on several "professional" ornithologists to help. In this week's Historical Notes we provide articles and social media posts that make a strong case why bringing as many people as possible to see owls is a good thing, and why using sound to attract birds (owls) is not a problem (for birds). Here are some excerpts:


(a) in the 2018 NY Times article (The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls), Noah Comet writes: "Perhaps when we find an owl that is not especially wary, outside of nesting season and in a publicly accessible place, we ought to freely share that information, especially with those uninitiated to birding;" (b) in a follow-up comment Kevin McGowan PhD of Cornell University states: "Owls are not particularly vulnerable to disturbance, and they are spectacular ambassadors to non-birders."


Regarding using sound to bring in birds such as owls, Kenneth Rosenberg PhD, the head of the Conservation Science Department at Cornell writes (c) "Bottom line is that the scientific evidence (sparse as it is) does not support the often strongly negative views that some birders have towards the use of playback to lure birds into view or get them to pose for photographs. As with most ethical questions, then, this issue comes down to people's personal opinions and choices; and: "Certainly compared with virtually every other form of anthropogenic disturbance or threat to habitats that birds face everywhere and all the time, the use of playback by birders, from a conservation perspective, is simply a non-issue. If one's personal birding ethics do not include playback or pishing because of the perceived temporary stress to individual birds, that is fine, but please don't question the integrity of other birders."


I don't think any of the this information will change anyone's position on the matter of bringing people to see owls in NYC parks, or using calls to bring them to us at night. However, Deborah and I thought it important to provide information from "experts" on the matter, so a more grounded and well-rounded discussion might take place. I doubt it, but one can always hope/dream. See you in Central Park for bird walks by day, and this coming Sunday night for the Owl Walk in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx


Short-eared Owl, Washington state, January 2019

[below] Great Horned Owls, 31 December 2020; Riverdale (the Bronx); Deborah Allen

[below] Long-eared Owl; Central Park (Ramble), 3 December 2008 Deborah Allen

[below] Pharaoh's Eagle-owl Boumalne Dades, Morocco, 1 Feb. 2023 Deborah Allen

Bird Walks for Mid to Late FEBRUARY 2023

All Walks @ $10/person

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here


1. Sunday, 19 February at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond. $10. The Dock on Turtle Pond is located mid-park at 79th street opposite Belvedere Castle.


1a. Sunday, 19 February. OWL WALK at 5:30pm (yes 5:30pm) Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx for Eastern Screech-owls and Great Horned Owls $10/person - Meet at the Golf Course Club House (free and easy/safe parking). For directions CLICK HERE or CLICK HERE. At VC Park South take the road (opposite Bailey Avenue) that heads into the park (don't bear right else you end up on the north bound Major Deegan Expressway). Go under the overpass to find the big parking lot ahead...The Golf Course Club House is a very large building (with bathrooms) - see red arrow on the map below. Parking is free/safe here. Leave flashlights home (they tend to blind people especially in the hands of children). I'll have a large professional one that will illuminate owls for photography. If you really must have light, use your cell phone to see where you are walking. We will be out two hours or so, and if time permits we can head to a second location at the north end of Van Cortlandt Park to try for more owls. If you are lost (please don't be late) call Deborah's cell: 347-703-5554. If you are taking the train (#1 train to the last stop = 242nd street) let us know and we will help get you to the meeting location. Any questions? Email us: rdcny@earthlink.net


For a video of one of the owls we want to see, click HERE. This was recorded Wednesday evening (7:30pm), February 15th at Van Cortlandt Park.

2. Sunday, 26 February at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond $10. The Dock on Turtle Pond is located mid-park at 79th street opposite Belvedere Castle.


3. Sunday, 5 March at 9:30am. Bird Walk. Meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond $10. The Dock on Turtle Pond is located mid-park at 79th street opposite Belvedere Castle.

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On Sundays, if you do the 7:30am walk you can do the second (9:30am walk) for free. You get two for one. Weekend walks will continue through August and into December. Monday walks at 8:30am begin on Labor Day, 7 September and will continue through middle November and then resume in March 2021. Friday morning walks start 25 September and end in early December...to resume in March 2012. What are you waiting for?


Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions: rdcny@earthlink.net


Great Horned Owl Pelham Bay Park (The Bronx) 25 January 2021 Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends in winter meet on Sundays at 9:30am at the Dock on Turtle Pond (approx. 79th street in the middle of the park...at the south end of the Great Lawn). Please note: Delacorte Theater is just next door...find the path (paved) that heads out to Turtle Pond and you will indeed reach a wooden dock that extends into the pond. Check the Meeting Locations (CLICK HERE) page of our web site for detailed directions.


Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is (rdcny@earthlink.net). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks at about noon near 79th street and the East Drive - about 150 meters east from where we started. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if cold or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we aim to please.


Eastern Screech-owl Van Cortlandt Park (the Bronx) 18 March 2018 Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Sunday, 12 February (Meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond at 930am in winter): OK it's winter and about the worst month to see birds in Central Park...and we apologize to the new birders today - for the lack of birds - things will improve soon enough. Anyway, we made a feint to the Ramble to confuse the birds...we hand fed many Tufted Titmice as people always love this - much fun when a bird lands on your hand. We picked up a couple of Fox Sparrows...there was a flyby Cooper's Hawk (adult). BUT mischievous people as we are = we were most interested in sneaking up on the Eurasian Eagle-owl that escaped the Central Park zoo, and has become a resident in the lower half of the park. So we headed south to the Herksher Ballfield area and sure enough, we found the Eurasian Eagle-owl by looking for the 12-18 people standing together gazing up into the treetops. "This is what all the hullabaloo in the media is all about?" Yes, but what a magnificent bird (larger than our native Great Horned Owl - see Deborah's photo of Pharaoh's Eagle-owl in this Newsletter for comparison). The Eurasian Eagle-owl was 50-75 feet up in the top of a tree. After the nearby Red-tailed Hawk left the area, the owl seemed very relaxed to me. What would you expect from an owl that had spent the last 10+ years in an enclosure with people staring at it all day...making noise/talking etc?


Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 12 February 2023: CLICK HERE


Pearl Spotted Owlet Chobe National Park Botswana 27 November 2022 Deborah Allen

HISTORICAL NOTEs


The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls [January 2018]

New York Times

Noah Comet


Owls tend to be secretive. While there are a few American species that enjoy the daylight hours, most are nocturnal and spend their days behind thick greenery or uncannily blending into the bark of the trees they nestle against. Once they’ve found a secure place to snooze, they are likely to return to that spot daily, but even if you find evidence of their presence — scat and regurgitated pellets — good luck seeing the clandestine culprits.


I’m a seasoned birder with a particular interest in owls, and on my ventures to find them, even when I have specific information on where they’ve been seen just minutes before, I’ve failed to find them more often than not. Such elusiveness makes “owling” one of the great birding challenges. Being the first to find a particular owl is regarded by some as a badge of distinction, and those who find them regularly are viewed with awe-struck reverence.


While birders prize owls, the ethical ones also abet the species’ secretive natures with their own code of silence, an owl “omertà.” Many people will not share the specifics of an owl’s location or will do so only in whispers. A typical owl dislikes disruption and will find a new roost if too many people kick up a racket near its daybed. This forces the bird to expend valuable energy — and of course throws off its sleep pattern.


But I worry that in our effort to protect these elusive and private birds, we birders are falling short of another responsibility: to promote the cause of wildlife conservation by letting others in on our secrets so they, too, can see these magnificent predators and celebrate them.


On listservs and bird reporting sites, users often note an owl location only well after the fact or provide a general location (Springfield Park) rather than a detailed one (halfway up the sycamore east of the bike trail near the footbridge). Even birders you know might get testy if you ask for details. When you request such information, you do so sheepishly, acknowledging your impropriety while promising discretion. Being protective of owl sightings has caused more than one heated argument; ask too many times and you may be shunned.


Some Facebook birding groups are known for brutal takedowns and highhanded admonitions. A thread in 2013 culminated in an impassioned plea from a respected naturalist who urged her readers to “seriously limit” their time at an owl spot that had been irresponsibly shared and to “consider not returning.”


That many birders are tight-lipped is a good thing, of course, because the cost of incaution can be disappointment or tragedy. When I lived in Ohio there was a hot spot nearby that was reliable for wintering long-eared owls, a species that many birders might travel across state lines to see. Over time the location, details and all, became widely known; sure enough, the owls stopped coming [but...click HERE).


There are stories about other owls being loved to death — fleeing spotting scopes and telephoto lenses only to be hit by cars — or of landowners, once tolerant of owlers on their properties, who revoked access for all because of an unprincipled few.


Snowy Owl Jones Beach Long Island (NY) 28 December 2020 Deborah Allen

Fortunately, every region seems to have an ambassador owl or two — an individual that seems indifferent to human attentions. I remember one that chose a nesting site right next to a busy playground and would snooze the day away in the open with no regard for the screaming toddlers, slamming car doors or barking dogs below. These birds are often their viewers’ first owls and are for many the sightings that get them hooked on birding.

And that’s arguably a downside to birders’ protective secrecy: Owls might be rivaled only by bald eagles as ornithological recruiting agents, inspiring young and old to take an interest, to care about wildlife and to want to share with others. It’s no accident that many nature centers have live birds of prey, including owls, on display for visitors and that many birding organizations sponsor evening “owl prowls.” But as awesome as it is to see an owl up close in captivity or hear one hooting in the distant dark, there’s nothing like seeing one in the wild on its own terms.


It’s snowy owl season in the upper reaches of the United States. Though not entirely dependable, this species is a not-uncommon winter visitor from the Arctic, and during years of sudden upsurges in migration, these owls can show up in significant numbers, on piers and coastal dunes, in stubble fields — even at urban parks and airports.

Because they often rest on the ground and hunt by day (after all, it never gets dark for much of their time up north), they can be conspicuous, much to the delight of birders and amateur photographers. For the same reason, they seem to enjoy a less protected status from birders than their nocturnal kin. With a snowy owl, full location details are even likely to end up in a feel-good segment on the local newscast. (We may have Harry Potter to thank for that.)


All of this points to a basic wildlife watcher’s conundrum: When you know the location of a charismatic but sensitive species, do you keep that information to yourself (or to a small network of trusted peers), or do you broadcast it far and wide? The first option reeks of a kind of proprietary elitism, but it is of immediate benefit to the animal. The second option seems recklessly harmful to the animal, but if it promotes the hobby and raises awareness, then it might lead to far greater long-term benefits to conservation.


Though there are usually those easy-to-see ambassador owls around, many birders insist on keeping mum about those locations, too; perhaps, for the greater good, they shouldn’t. And here’s a more controversial thing to say: Perhaps when we find an owl that is not especially wary, outside of nesting season and in a publicly accessible place, we ought to freely share that information, especially with those uninitiated to birding. If you have the time, set up a scope and invite passers-by to take a look, and if you have school-age children, see whether a field trip is possible.


Some of my birding friends will balk at this suggestion, and there was a time when I would have been skeptical, too. But in an era of deregulation, of species being removed from the Endangered Species Act and of stripped-away land protections, conservationists may need to try harder than ever to get fellow citizens to care about wildlife. It’s awfully hard to care about what you can’t see.


Noah Comet is an assistant professor of English at the United States Naval Academy.


Barn Owl Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx) April 2012

Comment on The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls

Kevin J. McGowan PhD

20 January 2018


I agree with the logic of this article, and have made the same argument for years. Owls are not particularly vulnerable to disturbance, and they are spectacular ambassadors to non-birders. Do you know how many Northern Saw-whet and Boreal owls exist in the world, and how few ever encounter people (other than, perhaps, over-exuberant banders;^))? One in a publicly-available spot can generate so much goodwill that, as an educator, I would argue to disturb its sleep a few times so that people can experience it.


It boils down to the old saw: people only protect what they love, and they don't love anything they don't know. And, I would add that the best way to learn to love owls is to actually see one face-to-face in the wild.


But, from my experience on this issue, people seem to have become almost as religious in their views as the cats-as-predators one. I am happy to see a logical, not emotional public piece about it, nonetheless.


That's my humble opinion, and I don't expect everyone to agree. Just saying...


Kevin

[below] Eastern Screech-owl, the Bronx September 2020 Deborah Allen

Verreaux's Eagle-owl Kruger National Park (South Africa) 30 July 2022 Deborah Allen

The post below is from the Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; a founder of Partners in Flight and an Eisenmann medalist. From: Kenneth Victor Rosenberg Cc: CAYUGABIRDS-L Sent: April 2012

Subject: (playback) Have birding ethics changed?


Hi all,


Although this discussion has gone on for awhile and is in danger of getting too heated for this List, I feel compelled to jump in. I want to thank those who brought scientific experience and reasoning to the debate, and especially to Lee Ann for the links to deeper discussion and actual studies on this topic. Bottom line is that the scientific evidence (sparse as it is) does not support the often strongly negative views that some birders have towards the use of playback to lure birds into view or get them to pose for photographs. As with most ethical questions, then, this issue comes down to people's personal opinions and choices. So here is my (hopefully somewhat professional and reasoned) personal opinion:


I have been a professional ornithologist for 35 years and have spent much of the past 15 years trying to help conserve threatened and declining bird populations; I am also a lifelong birder, bird-tour leader and teacher. I have used playback in a wide variety of situations ranging from scientific protocols to purely recreational -- I frequently use an owl-mobbing playback during birding, in order to get a more thorough count of the species in a given area.


I am not aware of any situation in which a population of birds was adversely affected by use of playback by birders or researchers. Even in the most famous and hotly debated cases (Arizona trogons) no effects on nesting success could be shown, and after 40+ years of using playback and imitating calls (the same thing really) in many Arizona canyons, none of the highly sought species have disappeared from those areas -- in fact most have expanded their distribution and populations in the general region. I know of many, many cases where bird tour leaders at tropical locations return year after year to the same "rare" bird territories, using playback successfully to show these amazing birds to successive groups of people. The primary negative effect of "excessive" use of playback (certainly a subjective term) is that the birds quickly habituate to the sound and stop responding -- very often a bird continues to sing on its territory but simply does not respond to the playback (guides use the expression "taped out" to describe such birds). Even around here I have found that chickadees will not respond to the owl-mobbing playback if I go to the same area within a short time frame. In my experience the adverse effects of excessive playback is mostly on the birders and not on the birds. In certain locations, such as the tropical lodge discussed in the posts at Lee Ann's link, or South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon, guidelines for regulating use of playback (but not banning) might be necessary -- but again, mostly to preserve the experiences of other birders.


Barred Owl Central Park (North Woods) 20 December 2020 Deborah Allen

I think the ABA Code of Birder Ethics has this issue well covered, and Sibley's guidelines are very sensible and even offer tips for improving the effectiveness of playback while birding. And John Confer -- among the most cautious and respectful bird people I have known -- summarized well the biological perspective that even regular (daily) use of playback, even during the breeding season (not to mention the subsequent capture, handling, and blood-sampling of individual birds), had minimal if any effect on breeding success or population status. Certainly compared with virtually every other form of anthropogenic disturbance or threat to habitats that birds face everywhere and all the time, the use of playback by birders, from a conservation perspective, is simply a non-issue.


If one's personal birding ethics do not include playback or pishing because of the perceived temporary stress to individual birds, that is fine, but please don't question the integrity of other birders or SFO [School of Field Ornithology] leaders that choose to use these tools to enhance the birding experience.


KEN


Ken Rosenberg PhD

Conservation Science Program

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Little Owl near Souss-Massa National Park, Morocco, 8 February 2023 Deborah Allen


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