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Wintering owls are back. Let’s give them space and respect.

wintering owls
Short-eared Owl, photographed in Utah. Photo by Jolie Gordon

The forthcoming January/February 2022 issue of BirdWatching includes a terrific article by science writer Cheryl Lyn Dybas about the Short-eared Owl, a widespread but declining bird of grasslands. North American birders most often encounter the bird in winter, just as with Snowy Owl, Long-eared Owl, Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. As winter weather starts to descend on parts of North America, reports of these species have increased in recent days and weeks. (We’ve seen a push of Snowy Owls in just the last couple of days, for example.)

And as with many of our owl species, Short-eared Owls tend to attract lots of birders and photographers, and unfortunately, poor behavior toward the birds sometimes follows. Cheryl’s article focuses on the wintering Short-ears at the Washington County Grasslands, a protected area located about an hour’s drive north of Albany, New York. A few years ago, a surge in complaints about people following owls into fields at the Grasslands caused the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to issue warnings.

“DEC strongly encourages all visitors to the Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area to safely observe birds and other wildlife from a distance and to not approach roosting raptors,” the agency said at the time. “Trespassing and harassing wildlife is illegal, is harmful to the birds, and DEC environmental conservation police officers and forest rangers will be patrolling the area and enforcing these laws.”

DEC closes part of the Grasslands area each winter to protect owls and other raptors from harassment. The problem, of course, is not limited to owl-watchers in Washington County or New York. For years, overzealous people in many places in North America who were trying to “get the perfect shot” or just a little better view have put their own enjoyment above the welfare of owls or other birds. This often leads to negative publicity about birders and can jeopardize bird conservation.

The solutions largely require common sense and empathy toward the birds and their welfare. DEC offers several tips for respectful wildlife viewing, including:

  • Watch from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope.
  • Avoid flushing wildlife and never purposely chase wild animals.
  • Do not feed wildlife.
  • Stay on existing roads, trails, or pathways to avoid trampling vegetation.
  • Respect private property. Never enter private property without permission. Trespassing is illegal.
  • Park in designated parking areas or on the road shoulder completely out of travel lanes.
  • Use caution when leaving or entering your vehicle and use caution when crossing roads.
  • Stay well out of travel lanes and be aware of road traffic at all times.

This winter, let’s all do our part and keep our distance from — and show respect toward — the owls.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

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