Monday, May 27, 2013

Whoo Says It's Too Close?

Owls are apparently unique in the bird world, as they tend to bring out more idiocy in the human population than any other species.

People bait owls to get a 'decent' photograph. They crowd a roosting owl trying to grab a snooze, forcing it to find a more secluded location. I've even seen people move branches away from a resting owl to get a photograph. Their biggest mistake was doing it right in front of me.

On our local birding blog we've made the decision not to release any photos or information on owl nests until long after the breeding season. We look at submitted owl photos on an individual basis, wondering if the location is too accessible. If it is, we won't post those photos.

The 10,000 Birds blog recently featured an excellent post by Sharon Stitele titled "How Close Is "TooClose" To An Owl? I wanted to run off enough copies to paper the city and force everyone to read it.

But here's a query. What if the owls in question don't care?

At the entrance to a busy, well-treed urban park in our city, 10 feet from the parking lot, sits a Great-horned Owl nest in a spruce tree. The nest first came to our attention the end of April when a nature club bird walk spotted the young owls. At that point the public were walking right past without realizing anything was there.

As the owlets grew though, people began to notice. And they've noticed in the hundreds! This has to be the most-viewed owl in the entire province.

You can get an excellent view of the family from the sidewalk even without binos. On my weekly visits (yes, I'm one of them) there is always a crowd. The female owl remains in the nest tree, and the male is generally close by. Most people don't see the male as they're fixated on the three baby owls.

May 3 visit

When the chicks were about 4 weeks old, park management put up two orange saw-horses to keep people from standing even closer to the tree. Naturally some people just went around them and walked up to the tree anyway. When we pointed out the reason the barriers were there, people jumped in surprise. They were so focused on the owls they hadn`t even registered the barriers.

So far, I have not seen any signs of stress in either parent. With three large, healthy chicks to look after these are two tired birds! No sign of an eye open even a slit. They appear so unconcerned I get the impression you could push them off the branch before they woke up.

May 10 visit

I wasn't leaving until the lump at the front showed some life.

Dad down for the count in a tree 4 feet from the parking lot.
The park is right beside a large housing development, and there are many, many people walking to the park every day to check on the owl chicks. One woman I talked to just had to make a quick trip to check on them, as she was going out of town for a month and they would be gone when she got back. People pop over from work on their lunch hour or coffee break.

I couldn't begin to estimate the number of pictures taken of these owls. Long lenses, point and shoots, cell phones, iPads, you name it and someone is using it. Yes, I'm using a long lens, and yes, I have far too many owl photos.

May 17 visit

Getting big!
Number 3 out of the nest a few branches below.
Mum catching a snooze.
Great-horned owls are among the more laid back members of the family anyway, but this pair has reached new levels with their choice of nesting location. 

But here's the thing. Every single person I have spoken to has done some research to find out what kind of owls they are, their nesting and growth habits, how long she sits on the eggs, how old they are when they fledge, etc . The elementary school in the district is bringing classes down to have a look, and I've heard many, many children explaining about the owls to their younger siblings. I`ve lost count of the number of people who just learned this is our provincial bird.

Every birder and zookeeper that has visited the site has ended up doing an impromptu interpretive talk about owls because, hey, that`s what we do. I've had complete strangers come up to me and start telling me about the life cycle of a Great-horned owl. I always strive to look impressed by their knowledge.

One woman told me she had done a web search to see if the nest had been mentioned in the local media and was surprised when she found nothing. She mentioned it wasn’t even on the Birds Calgary blog, so I explained our policy about not publicizing owl nest locations. Everyone in the crowd agreed that was the correct thing to do. Owl champions, every one!

May 25 visit

Soggy owl on day 2 of heavy rain.
Soggy #2
Adult plumage coming in nicely.
As birders trying to get new folks interested in birds and birdwatching, we have absolutely no hope of being as successful as this family of Great-horned owls. That spruce tree is going to be watched very closely by hundreds of people each spring. People will be checking the entire park for 'their' Great-horned Owls throughout the year, and noticing other birds in the process.

To a birder, 10 feet is too close to an owl nest. To these Great-horned owl ambassadors however, it seems to be the perfect choice to educate generations of future birders.


  1. Great post and adorable shots of the owlet!

  2. Here in eastern Iowa, we have had several 'Great-horned owl Ambassadors', in each case they have been great tools for education. There is one in a small town near us and I think the whole town knows about it. The last time I stopped and showed the owls to some beginners, someone came out of a nearby house. She told us of the owlet's antics the day before/ I thanked her for the use of her sidewalk. She was please to have us on her lawn looking at 'her' owls, even though they were a couple of yards down. I felt like we should do something for her, if it was a bird at feeders, I would have bought a bag of seed and given it to her, but I did not think she would be please with a bag of mice or squirrels.

  3. We have a new (to the area) active nest where I Iive in rural Calgary (which I have not sought out to find but I like listening to them) and I was thinking about the owls in the heavy rains recently. Your images satisfied that curiosity and I feel assured my owls are fine.

  4. just the most wonderful sighting and thanks so much for sharing this beautiful owl

  5. Great article and pictures. I'm so far behind in my posting, I usually don't post baby shots until long after they are grown and gone. We have a famous owl nest here in the Tampa bay area. At Honeymoon Island, they have a huge area of woods to nest anywhere off the trail and they chose to nest right on the trail in a low tree right at the entrance so anyone walking by could see. They didn't seem to mind.

  6. Thanks for the comments, owl friends! The owlets are just fine after 3 days of heavy, cold rain, and are starting to move a little further from the nest. Fledging week at last!

  7. Great post! We had the same situation at our school. A mother insists on nesting in the masse of 2000 teenagers. This year we maximized the situation and used it as a teaching strategy. Here are the results. 3 perfectly happy and INTELLIGENT owlets growing up. They have moved from tree to tree. If there are too many people watching, I watched the owlets the next day disappear into trees further away from the activity. I smiled when I had seen what they were doing. Everyone thought the ravens had killed them but I kept my words and monitored their progress to the colleagues. The kids learned a lot and the owlets today are doing well.....they've begun to fly:) Summer vacation is now here so they have the entire summer free of teenagers gawking at them:)

    You are right. Owls make people do crazy things. I have observed this many times. Whether it be a Great Horned Owl, Western Screech Owl, Mexican Spotted Owl, Elf Owl, etc etc......people push the limits. I had an evening with a rude woman who discovered that what she was doing was rude to other birders....and she didn't care. That's what I don't like to see out in the field. She knew better but still got too close to the bird anyway. Grrrr. Great post.

  8. Wow, I am amazed that these magnificent owls don't seem to mind the crowds at all. The Great Horned Owls in our area are so very shy. How exciting to be able to watch their progress so easily. Awesome photographs of these young owls!