A Burrowing Owl With Grit

I’ll give this handsome little owl credit for persistence. And pluck.


1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Sixteen days ago I posted a couple of photos of this Burrowing Owl that had recently occupied a burrow on Antelope Island. Those were my first shots of the species this season and I was happy to see that the little guy wasn’t banded as so many island owls are. This photo was taken on March 22.

But in that post over two weeks ago I pointed out that the burrow this owl had chosen to occupy was extremely close to a road and I predicted with some confidence that the owl would very soon abandon the burrow. It’s just too darned close to the road and once it was “discovered” by photographers and others the owl would be forced to find a burrow that was a little more remote. That’s exactly what happened to another Burrowing Owl that occupied the same burrow several years ago.



1/2500, f/5.6, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

So three days ago I was surprised (almost shocked) to see that the owl was still there! I only got a brief glimpse of it in poor light but I’m almost certain it’s the same bird and immediately after this photo was taken it went down the burrow and I left the area.

It doesn’t appear to have found a mate yet but since this bird has been tolerant enough of traffic and people to maintain its claim on the burrow for two weeks perhaps there’s a small chance that a family of owlets will be raised here this season. I hope visitors to the island give it enough space and respect to succeed.

But based on some of the things I’ve seen on the island in the past I’m not terribly optimistic. We’ll see how it goes…


PS – I suspect some regular visitors to my blog might think I’m a little sanctimonious about including “not baited, set up or called in” in my image techs. I’ve done it for years and some readers are probably tired of seeing it. But raptor baiting (owls especially) has become insidiously pervasive, it’s almost never disclosed and I’ve discovered that most folks aren’t aware of how many “nature” photographers use that unethical technique.

Outdoor writer and nature photographer Michael Furtman was recently interviewed for an excellent article on owl baiting published on PetaPixel titled “The Foul Practice of Wild Owl Baiting“. If you have the interest I strongly recommend that you check it out.

33 comments to A Burrowing Owl With Grit

  • Ethics matter. And shouldn’t be compromised. Thank you for the link to the article.
    I love that neither you nor Mia ‘bait’ and that I know it, and anyone who comes across your blogs knows it.
    And I wish painful haemmorhoids on all those who do bait.

  • April Olson

    It is hard, I like people to be aware of the owls and be able to enjoy them from a distance. But once aware of the owls too many people do not understand they are disturbing the owls if too close. What are ways we can teach wildlife ethics to the public in large?

    • “What are ways we can teach wildlife ethics to the public in large?”

      It isn’t an easy task, April. I reach my audience with the message but that’s largely preaching to the choir. When I was teaching high school (biology, zoology and wildlife) I think I got the message of wildlife deserving respect across to many thousands of students over the years but once folks become adults and set in their ways and beliefs it becomes much more difficult.

      About all we can do is keep trying and hoping the ethic will spread…

  • Marian Brown

    Thank you for always reminding us about the genuine concerns for the well being of our living subjects! Beyond baiting, some unethical photographers actively push owls into flight to get a flight shot, which resulted in the death of one such owl in our area recently. Even bird seed has to be used with consideration for suitable brush cover, as might be appropriate to the situation, in my own garden. I’m not against baiting in certain very limited settings, but consider it best left to people who really know their subjects well and have genuine concern for them. I’ve seen Burrowing Owls pushed into flight by beginner photographers too, with short lenses and no idea what they were doing. It isn’t just photographers though, we had some Burrowing Owls nesting in the edge of the sand trap and golfers were always walking within inches of the burrow to retrieve or play a ball, rather use the long pole on their cart to grab the ball from a slight distance and move it away, as they had been instructed. Some unknown hateful golfer shoved his sand bottle (provided to allow repair of divets) down the Burrowing Owl opening, trapping the breeding pair in the hole, where they died (that was Mountain View Shoreline golf course, adjacent to the Google campus, California). Whether enjoying the fresh air while playing golf or out photographing scenery and wildlife, education about considerate behavior is a serious matter. I am also in favor of observation blinds in high use areas, with paths clearly marked off and movement off paths subject to steep fines.

  • Judy Gusick

    Nice shot! Mixed feelings about the owl still being by the road as I hate to see them harassed. I too have noticed more articles out and about on NOT baiting – “progress” 🙂 Will always be some, of course, that don’t care how they get the shot as long as they get it. 🙁

    • You’re right, Judy – there’ll always be some. But the more pressure that’s put on them the better – for birds and for nature photographers in general.

  • Chris Sanborn

    Baiting is a despicable act for all the reasons pointed out in the article and by (most of) your commenters, and I’m very glad to be reminded of it daily when I check your posts. So no problem with that. And as potentially dangerous as the burrow location might be, I’m very glad to see this little guy (girl?) again. What an expressive face! But I’d much prefer this one was in a safer location than so exposed to human & vehicle traffic. Fingers X’d for a change of venue.

  • Dick Harlow

    I wish I had some way of knowing whether a photograph in a Mag is from baiting or not. I assume any shot around bird feeders acts the same way as baiting, but in that case one knows from the picture that the picture is due to food in the feeders or feeding table. I will not accept photographs in the paper, mag, or journal that even hints at the possibility it could have been baited, UN:ESS it was labeled, not baited or lured in. Maybe it is my suspicious nature why I do not enter contests and find various organizations, some that seem reputable, tolerates, what is to me, are unethical practices. Ron, you won’t see or hear me complaining about your “not baited, set up or called in” comment about your photography even though I’ve been on your blog for a few years!!

    • Dick, thankfully many bird photography contests and nature magazines are finally getting the message. Many of them have fairly recently changed their policies to not accept images of baited raptors.

      Most of us don’t see feeding songbirds at feeders as baiting. But baiting raptors is another story for many, many reasons.

      • Dick Harlow

        Thanks for this note, I’m glad contests are “getting the message.”‘
        I agree baiting raptors is entirely different than feeding birds at your feeder.
        But, other than taking someones picture who is baiting or harassing raptors/Owls and submitting the picture to local Fish & Wildlife, the mystery to me is how do we change the mentality of the average person to respect wildlife? I know some have that respect, but it only takes one or two numskulls!

  • Dick Harlow

    Great shots Ron! I have always wondered about birds and in particular predatory birds learning to use human facilities, e.g. roads, fences, buildings, cars, etc., to their advantage. Do they see it as a means of protection, or additional chance for food since rodents and others also use human facilities? I can’t imagine them NOT making use of us and our facilities. As you say if humans will give them the space! I look at this fellow as a pioneer out beyond other Owls comfort zone, defiant, not afraid. I’m with you hoping that humans will give him space.

    • “I look at this fellow as a pioneer out beyond other Owls comfort zone, defiant, not afraid”

      That’s kind of the way I look at this bird, Dick. The argument could be made that the best hope for Burrowing Owls over the long haul would be if they adapt as a species to become more tolerant of man – similar to what foxes, coyotes, skunks and some other bird species have done.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Another note on baiting…in addition to all the very good reasons given in that article is another, to me, ethical one that has always bothered me is that of placing an innocent, helpless “bait” animal in an open, unfamiliar place where it has no defense and is doomed to be killed just for the enjoyment, thrill, pleasure or photo op of some effing human….hunter, photographer or tourist…There’s no ” level playing field”…The “bait”, be it a petshop mouse or a tethered goat doesn’t even have a chance….this has always made me sick……

    • Many folks feel as you do, Patty…

    • Nancy Blake

      I agree, Patty. I don’t especially like photos of owls swallowing whole prey and I don’t even like photos of herons or egrets swallowing fish (I feel sorry for the fish!). However, hypocrite that I am, I have taken photos of birds with prey myself, although never baited ones.

    • Marty K

      Baiting always reminds me of that scene with the cow at the start of Jurassic Park…

  • Randy Black

    ” “discovered” by photographers and others”, seems that it already has been discovered. Even with a 500mm, crop sensor, and 1.4X extender, and post processing crop, could it be that we photographers are not a little bit hypocritical ?

    • Randy, if taking these photos of that bird at the distance I was at with no one else around and not disclosing the location makes me a hypocrite in your eyes, so be it. You’ll forgive me if I don’t lose any sleep over it though…

      • Patty Chadwick

        Tongue in cheek, snide implications aside, I can’t help but wonder what the rare critics of your blog have done themselves to personally contribute (in a positive way) to the love, respect, education and understanding–re: behaviors, habitat requirements and ethical treatment of wildlife (including, but not limited to birds)…for example: respecting “their space” by using a huge, powerful zoom, knowing ,and sharing, their nesting habitats so as to avoid threatening them in anyway, educating your viewers about habitat preservation crucial to their survival, explaining and exposing unethical practices, never abandoning your sense of integrity just for the sake of a great shot….etc., etc. etc., …The list is long…I’ve earned there are “doers” and there are career ” fault finders”…reminds me of that old story about the two buckets of crabs…just wondering……

  • Patty Chadwick

    I almost wish you’d gotten out of your pickup, danced around menacingly, waved your arms, made some threating noises, moved in on that bird, scared the hell out of him—-and made him move to a new site(FAR away from the road)—then filled in the (hopefully) abandoned burrow….with big, heavy rocks (if you couldn’t find a clueless photonerd or more to stuff into it)….

  • Kris Eberhard

    I suspect that the folks who can’t discriminate between virtue and sanctimony are probably the ones who most need the reminders ……….I’m glad that you provide daily ethical reinforcement.

  • Gail Rich

    Fingers crossed that the little fella stays and is not bothered. Have you seen ethicalowlphotos on instagram? To me those words you include mean I can enjoy your wonderful photos without fearing for the well-being of their subjects.

  • Marty K

    Your ethics are a big draw for me — I know that you respect the organisms you photograph and would never do anything to harm them nor to interfere with their lives in the wild. It is a damn shame that the same cannot be said for all who wish to photograph nature. The fact that you get such incredible shots on a regular basis demonstrates that nature photography can indeed be done both ethically and well.