Re Controversy of Feeding Owls

Wildlife News


Hancock here: 

Another review of Feeding Wildlife:  The Controversy Surrounding Feeding Owls etc.
(Feb. 23, 2014 – prompted by letter from Daniel Dietrich)

Quite fascinating.  I had somehow missed this controversy! 

I find the issue, and the conflict surrounding feeding owls or other wildlife, a fascinating study of human behavior and a relatively simple adaption on the part of the wildlife.  Is feeding wildlife good for wildlife or bad?  I guess like food for us humans some is good while at times it gets carried away but on the whole food is essential.  Of course so are other parts of the habitat at different seasons.

My recollections about when I first started to be involved with wildlife go something like this:  It was not even news that every eagle, owl, bear, sea lion or orca that was seen was shot.  Our northwest coast eagles did not suffer from pesticides.  They suffered because people did not care to see them alive.  They were vermin and should be killed.  Some governments even paid $2.00 for a pair of eagle legs.  Orcas were machine-gunned by every Canadian Government Fisheries vessel.  A dead owl hung on a fence post was a good owl.  It was not a good time to care for wild creatures.

The human attitudes towards predators in the 1950s through the 1960s was that these wild creatures were our enemies, our competitors and our obligation was to kill them and we did this with enthusiasm and government support.  By the early 1960s my aerial surveys could only find 3 pairs of bald eagles nesting in the lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia.  They could visit Semiahmoo Bay or the Skagit River in Washington State and not easily return to Canada without their legs!  There was not a single active bald eagle nest along the entire Washington State San Juan Islands or adjacent mainland.  I circled every Island by air, even getting buzzed by military aircraft when I missed noticing their restricted zones!

THEN some things changed!  Rachel Carson brought together the collective wisdom of those who cared and pointed out we were going to wake up to a Silent Spring.  We were killing off the song birds and their predators and scavengers with pesticides.  The world stopped to ponder.  An ecological awaking was about to happen.  Humans, at least some of them, made the jump from human the exploiter to human the caring sharer.  Of course not enough made that transition.  The real first case awareness of our impact on ourselves was set in place.  If the songbirds, the gulls, the peregrines and eagles disappeared we humans were obviously next.  If you are a pragmatist you are drawn in to this argument.  Even the greed-driven individual "should" be drawn in to support this -- but often greed can't even see till tomorrow, let alone to next year!  Our vulnerability as a species became associated with the vulnerability of other species.  That is the axiom of ecology and conservation.  We are all related ecologically!  

Maybe we needed to care about the backyard birds, the fleeting peregrine or that northern seasonal visiting owl. We had missed caring in time to save two of the world's largest biomasses of living creatures: the Passenger Pigeon and the Plains Buffalo.  Maybe we were being given another chance. But are we up to the challenge?  The race to exploit the worst environmental travesty on the face of the entire earth in 4,000 years of human exploitation, the Alberta Tar Sands, suggests "instant greed"  still prevails over common sense.  We learned nothing from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  Exxon only paid a few dollars for a little part of the cleanup.  No damages were paid to the fisherman or citizenry for the trillions of dollars of last resources.  Big oil passed that cost on to the world.  The current Tar Sands project and oil pipelines to the Pacific or the Gulf are doing exactly the same, while also saying how wonderful they are. 

By the early 1960s backyard bird feeders took on a new reality and appreciation, birders and "non-birders" started to pay more attention to whether or not our feathered neighbors were continuing to decline or on the mend.  Raptors became the new "popular species to count" because they were bigger, often more conspicuous and upon observation collectively and individually very exciting creatures in themselves.  Many started to again appear on telephone poles and fence posts!  Also it was easier to count a few predators at the top of the food chain than "multitudes of tiny creatures at the bottom" hidden in the bush or the ocean's depth!   My aerial Fraser Valley bald eagle nest count went from 3 pairs in 1966 to just over 400 nesting pairs who have set up housekeeping for the 2014 nesting season.  I like this part of what has happened.

As I have spent the past hour contemplating this response I have seen 4 species of woodpeckers and 11 species of passerines, the LBJs (the Little Brown Jobs!) come to my feeder and over 65 wild wood ducks are sitting on my pond with a pair of hoodies, one pair of Canada Geese who arrived 4 days ago to reclaim their breeding territory of 5 years and more mallards than I wish to count.  Two sharpies, possibly one was a male Coopers Hawk, passed "through" creating momentary havoc.  Perhaps these artificial food sources have some downsides to wildlife species but considering that in most areas of human intrusion, the streets, parking lots, subdivision, industrial wastelands or acreages of mono-cultured crops support little or no wildlife,  I prefer to see people conscientiously care. As I was finishing this a female Coopers Hawk just made an unsuccessful try on my old friend the male pileated.  Maybe some of these small bird hawks will also survive the winter on the surplus passerines that feeders support?

In my over 60 years of watching wildlife I was elated with the change in attitudes that took place in the late 1960s.  A captured Killer Whale at the Vancouver Aquarium began to change our perceptions of these magnificent creatures.  They became the much loved Orcas of today, not the despised and shot killer whales of yesteryear.  Now the human screaming is about keeping a dolphin in captivity while much of the world still doesn't even know about their threatened waters and the intelligence they possess and goes merrily along with killing them as competitors or for food.  We need to focus on the health of their habitat, their very existence! 

The much publicized threat of the endangerment of the American Bald Eagle led to our acceptance of this adaptable scavenger and transformed it from hated vermin to treasured icon.  The whaling industry was forced, largely by diminished economic returns, to quit killing these awesomely intelligent inhabitants of the world's oceans.  Now more money is derived from "whale watching expeditions world-wide" than was made from killing them.

So where is this all going?  Do I prefer people feeding owls to shooting them?  You bet!  Do I think humans have degraded most wild habitats so the wild supports less diversity and wildlife numbers?  You bet!  Does some well intentioned human intervention like back yard feeders or even human activities with some associated benefit, like encouraging owls by feeding them, have some potential down sides?  Maybe occasionally!  The downsides are isolated, rare and in the big picture largely meaningless.  But these downsides seem so small compared to the upsides directly for the wildlife.  Giving a supplemental handout by backyard feeders, by supplementing winter deer or crane food when we have cut off all their normal winter migration and feeding areas, or someone offering fish guts or a coarse fish or even a salmon filet to resident or passing eagles seems the right vs. wrong thing for us to encourage.  Not only does the wildlife benefit but the feeders become dedicated wildlife supporters, probably more important in our ecologically deteriorating world.

I would think the mouse offered to an owl might be appreciated by the owl.  Is that not why the bird took it?  Maybe the streets, the parking lots, the houses and other environmental human pollutions have degraded the wild mouse and owl habitat.   Maybe, just maybe, instead of taking away from the natural world, that wildlife-owl feeder is making a positive contribution, filling in some habitat element in momentary short supply.  Maybe the suet or seeds in people's back yard is replacing something humans have removed somewhere else nearby.  I don't care a damn that the photographer used this "bait" to get a better image. Hopefully he helped pay for his camera and gas.   Maybe that better image will inspire or even provide a momentary joy to the image viewer and make that person more sensitive to the next owl or owl habitat or local wetlands discussion.  Awareness, appreciation and joy of seeing wildness must surely be cultured and nurtured if it is to turn into genuine caring and undertaking the costs of doing things right.   How else did the world change from killing every orca or eagle or owl to today, to debating the merits of offering a mouse to a hungry owl?  Sometimes we fail to see the forest for the trees. 

The concept of outlawing such behavior is simply nonsense, misplaced understanding. Where is the downside?  By supplemental feeding we are not creating owls, woodpeckers or even bald eagles that can't forage for themselves.  That concept is simply a misunderstanding.  We are largely offering a supplement of food in a greatly human-modified habitat.  Generally that means that humans have removed some good positive elements that other wildlife need for some part of their life's cycle. 

Feeding Bald Eagles is our longest standing example. Bald Eagles have been fed by humans for over 9,000 years, yes 9,000 years, and eagles show no sign of loosing their natural foraging abilities.  For millenia along the north west coast the bald eagles lived adjacent to each Native village and foraged the beaches to pick up the offal remains on a daily basis.  What today's eagles have done is accommodate to again living near humans that don't kill them. So a few people today enjoy giving them, as in the old days, some additional offerings.  Maybe this feeding will inspire our present human beings to elevate the bald eagle to our First Nations' status - belief that the eagle is the primal spirit.

Back in the mid-1960s I so remember a fisherman, Sonny Dickson, who doubled as the local butcher on the docks at Bella Bella cannery midway up the BC coast.  This was in the era just after the eagle bounty in Alaska had been cancelled but eagles still suffered the fisherman's wrath.  They were still predators and scavengers and competitors to humans. Two days before witnessing the impact of one caring man, I had found 17 dead eagles on the shores of the Bay of Plenty on Princess Royal Island, the heart of what would later become "The Coastal Great Bear Rainforest" and all had been shot and left untouched. 

Sonny had single-handedly changed the fisherman culture around Bella Bella.  Daily he went out onto the docks and threw frames of fish carcasses and scraps of fat to the wheeling mass of gathering eagles.  The fisherman gathered around, not with guns, but with awe and majesty of these whirling and diving wonders.  Sonny's feeding of eagles did more for stopping the killing of eagles along the central British Columbia coast than any ultimate change of regulations or wildlife laws.  Sonny revealed, with a little help from artificial food inducement, that what was previously hidden from sight was a treasure just waiting to be seen, appreciated, understood and enjoyed.  Could feeding an owl do the same?  I truly suspect so!

Today bald eagles are again moving back into our native villages, now called cities and urban areas and are again living off the offal.  In part this is the street-killed rats, bunnies and birds.  Sometimes I suspect our modern landfill offal is not as healthy as it was 1000 years ago but that represents another challenge to be corrected by us, separate out our poisonous refuse for special treatment.  The good stuff is not largely different from the decaying carcasses they naturally scavenge.  Watching a bald eagle feed on a two month old rotting salmon carcass or seal carcass so putrid you don't want to be on the same beach soon suggests that what they eat is not necessarily to our taste! 

The big issue seems to be some people just don't want to understand change for good or for bad.   Circumstances differ and change.  Surely you don't want to be leaving garbage on the porch or even fruit on your trees in an area where bears frequent but that is one exception.  It is a myth that animals quickly loose their ability to forage naturally.  I think in part this myth was started by old Game Wardens now called Conservation Officers and to cover up how "weeks ago"  they or their profession largely justified their existence by killing unwanted vermin, yes eagles and owls, and today are trying to regain economic justification by proclaiming "protection over all species" even if this is still advocating nonsense like people feeding wildlife.  Even some early biologists, who witnessed how the feeding of herds of wintering deer could have negative impact, extrapolated to 'not feeding all wildlife'.  The jump is simply not true or justified.  Each case has to be studied separately.

Most certainly many species adapt quickly to supplemental feeding but that does not mean they lose wild foraging behaviors ingrained in the species over millions of years. 

The west coast bald eagle is a bird that depends upon dead salmon for nearly 6 to 8 months each year, the duration of the peak spawning season from Alaska to Oregon.  When the easy buffet of spawned-out salmon carcasses are eaten or frozen out the eagles are pressed to find other food sources.  On the coast the mid-winter early spring food might have been washed up seal or whale carcasses.  Today that is a rare offering.  In the mountain areas winter-killed big game, and today road-killed game, is a big supplement. I want to throw in here my recommendation that if you are not too "queasy" about dragging off a road-kill, please get in the habit of dragging them off the road to nearby fields where the scavengers don't become the second road kill.  Over much of the eagles' range the birds are adapting to new fish sources at dam and hydro impoundments.  

Today throughout the continent farm and city refuse dumps offer protein sources.  The fish, meat and poultry scrapes at landfills and from barn cleanouts is simply the extra protein that our/their revised habitat is producing.  I can't see this as totally negative.  Other regulations about poisons and diseased animals needs to be addressed separately.  Our scavengers are learning to pick up our garbage and prosper on it.  Since we have depleted so much of their other natural offal this may be necessary.  In short it is not a lot different, the leftovers of another predator-scavenger.

May you all look past the image of the owl, the woodpecker or the eagle that was enticed closer by artificial feeding and learn from the intimate viewing opportunities something about how this incredible creature has and is continuing to adapt to its human changing environment. 

David Hancock

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