Whispering In The Interest Of Nature


Barred owl, Maryland Credit Noah Comet

The birders among us say thank you, Noah Comet (and to the New York Times for providing the valuable real estate for this informative, charming essay):

The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls


Eastern screech owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — 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.


Northern saw-whet owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

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…

Read the whole essay here.

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