[Tweeters] calling for spotted owls

Janet Millard tilia at drizzle.com
Mon Oct 18 17:20:51 PDT 2010

Don't Give a
Hoot!  (an educational article)

Birders are generally
conservation minded people.  They truly care about the animals they are interested in
seeing and hearing.  However,
in their quest to observe as many species as possible some birders are
using tools that can be harmful to the birds they are trying to find.  In particular, the use of
tapes/MP3s and callers to locate birds can result in unintended negative
consequences to the species attracted through the use of these tools.  In some cases, the
modest use of playback calling is an acceptable way of locating a
bird.  At other times it is
very risky and exposes a bird to harm by calling it out from a hiding
place or causing other problematic changes in behavior.  Biologists and birders alike have
an ethical and biological responsibility to know when not to use playback
to find birds.



A 2006 U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service survey of wildlife-associated recreation activities
estimated there were nearly 48 million birders 16 years of age and older
in the U.S.  With this many
birders it becomes more important than ever to pursue this activity
ethically and with bird conservation in mind.  The United Kingdom’s Birdwatcher’s Code
states it eloquently:  avoid disturbing birds and their habitats –
the birds’ interests should always come first.  The recent explosion in
affordable technology has made it easier to overlook the birds’
interests.  Internet posting
of sightings, publication of localized birding guides, and advances in
digital music players and compact speaker technology enable birders to
follow detailed directions to known locations of rare birds and draw them
out.  Some birders’
relentless pursuit of the northern spotted owl is one such example of the
harm that may come from the use of modern technology. 



The northern spotted owl
was listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in 1990.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
listed the spotted owl primarily due to threats stemming from the loss of
suitable habitat through timber harvest, but other factors included
additional habitat loss from wildfire and competition from other species,
especially the barred owl. 
Despite its listing and the additional protections it has been
afforded, the northern spotted owl continues to display a rangewide
population decline.  Now that
the range of the barred owl completely overlaps that of the northern
spotted owl, the degree of competition for food, habitat, and space has
never been greater. 
Disturbances caused by human presence and noise can add to the
stress caused by habitat removal and competition.



There is a growing
consensus among owl biologists that barred owls are pushing spotted owls
out of their territories and may also be causing a reduction in spotted
owl vocalization.  Birders who
use playback to incite spotted owls to call may be inadvertently putting
spotted owls at risk by causing them to vocalize when they would normally
be trying to stay “under the radar”.  Human presence near nest sites also causes spotted owls
to vocalize more frequently. 
Barred owls (as well as goshawks, red-tailed hawks, and great
horned owls) have been observed attacking spotted owls on a number of
occasions.  Being near an
active nest site or using playback to incite spotted owls to call is
likely to increase the odds that spotted owls will be killed or driven
from their territories.  While
the risk of an attack on a spotted owl may be low, it is not zero, and it
is literally a matter of life and death. 



Exposing a spotted owl to
predatory attack is the most serious consequence posed by unethical
birding, but other negative effects can occur:


An owl that spends time
looking for the perceived owl (playback) in its territory does not spend
that time foraging for itself and for its young.  The energetic cost of needlessly
defending a territory may be a higher price than the owl or its chicks can


Playing calls within a
territory may make an owl think the territory is already occupied, and the
owl may needlessly move on to seek a vacant territory.  Vacant territories are increasingly
hard to find in a landscape overrun by barred owls.


Unattended chicks in the
nest are potential prey not only to the raptors listed above, but to
corvids as well.



All of these impacts
added together (and repeated if multiple uninformed birders visit the same
site during the year) may lead to nesting failure, site abandonment, or
death of spotted owls. A Birder’s Guide to Washington,
published in 2003, included detailed directions to many known spotted owl
sites. At least two of these nest sites near Cle Elum, WA have become
vacant or only sporadically occupied by single owls since this book was
published – possibly due to the dramatic increase in birder



Calling for spotted owls
without a permit is not only unethical, it is also
illegal:  it
is a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and can be considered
“take” which can lead to a fine of up to $25,000 and 6 months
in jail.  Causing a spotted
owl to leave shelter and have it fixated on you while you observe and
possibly spotlight it, significantly disrupts its normal
behavior; a form of “take” through



All birders should be
familiar with the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding
Ethics, which states up front: 
1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to
danger… Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting
birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas or for
attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special
Concern, or is rare in your local area.  Part of the joy of birding should be the development of
your fieldcraft while giving fair chase to your quarry, not relying on a
crutch like playback to lure birds into easy view.  Birding should be as much about the
methods used as it is about the numbers, and your county or life list is
all the more impressive when acquired skillfully and ethically.



Locations of ESA listed
species should never be posted on web sites such as eBird, Tweeters, or
similar e-bulletin boards.  Principled birders have no way of knowing who will read
their posts, and what methods the next person may use to attempt to locate
the bird.  The spotted owl is
but one example of why using call playback is not an ethically or
environmentally responsible means of attracting sensitive species for
viewing.  As a birder, your need to tick another
county or life bird is never more important than a bird’s life.
 No biologist wants to
see a species go extinct on their watch.  Please help contribute to the spotted owls’
recovery rather than contributing to their demise by allowing them to find
and defend territories and raise their young undisturbed. 



American Birding
Association (United States), Principles of Birding Ethics:





Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds (United Kingdom), Birdwatcher’s Code:





Many people contributed to this
article including:


Janet Millard, Don Youkey, Kent Woodruff, Bill Gaines
– USDA Forest Service, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest


Stan Sovern,–
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University


Eric D. Forsman –
USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station


Dan Stephens – Wenatchee Valley College, North
Central Washington Audubon, Washington Ornithological Society board member


Jeff Parsons – Vice
President, North Central Washington Audubon


Ken Bevis – Habitat
Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


Janet Millard
Leavenworth, WA

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