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Best Practices for ‘Stress-Free’ Snowy Owl Viewing

Courtesy file photo by Don Henise. First year owl perched on a power line.

(Chelsea Update would like to thank the Michigan DNR for the information in this story.)

Each winter, Michiganders get a chance to glimpse the large, magnificent snowy owl – and this species’ appearance across the state attracts a lot of attention.

However, it’s important to remember that winter tends to be a stressful time for birds like the snowy owl.

Snowy owls spend most of their year in the Arctic tundra, far away from humans and urban landscapes. When they travel to populated areas in the winter, these new places present unfamiliar threats like curious humans, rodent poison, and vehicle and power line collisions. Moreover, they often do not display signs of fear toward humans. This can sometimes get them into harmful situations.

Keep the best interests of these majestic creatures in mind. Here are a few quick tips for viewing snowy owls to keep them stress-free and safe:

Courtesy file photo by Don Henise. Adult female snowy owl perched on a power pole.

Give snowy owls space. A good rule of thumb is to view wildlife from a distance, using binoculars or a scope, rather than approaching. If you “flush” an owl, or cause it to move to a new area, you are too close and need to back away or leave. Even if the bird doesn’t seem to display signs of fear, it can still be scared and stressed by your presence.

Don’t lure owls with audio recordings. While it might be tempting to use audio recordings to attract snowy owls closer to you, hearing another owl’s call — even a recorded one — can be stressful for the bird. Snowy owls are solitary and territorial, and the call of another bird can put them on high alert.

Leave “live baiting” to the pros. Scientists and wildlife rehabbers use live bait like mice to entice owls for banding, relocation and rehabilitation. However, this practice can be dangerous for owls when it’s done by photographers, birders, or others. Baited owls learn to associate people with food, and may be drawn to dangerous places – like roads or airports – to find humans.

Submit your eBird observations to scientists but keep them hidden from the public. To prevent large gatherings of people and limit disturbing  snowy owls, keep your observations private.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to keep your eBird checklist hidden.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can help snowy owls safely enjoy their wintering grounds here in Michigan.

Questions? Contact Erin Ford at 313-820-0809.

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