Owl Behaviour & Ethics with Beth Mendelsohn

Owls have fascinated birders and non-birders alike for generations. Perhaps it’s their large size or nocturnal habits. Maybe it’s that they can turn their heads nearly 360 degrees around, or that their specialized flight feathers allow them to fly without making a sound. To some, like Beth Mendelsohn, a Raptor Biologist with the Owl Research Institute in Western Montana, owls aren’t just a fascination, they’re a full-time job. In this post, we talk to Beth about Owl behaviour and ethics.

“I never would have known that this was a job that you could have. If I had known as a kid, I would have been really excited, but it wasn’t something that was on my radar.” said Beth. “I just sort of bounced around at odd jobs and finally got lucky and got a field tech position in birds. From there, I just got hooked.”

The Wildlife Insider crew recently had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Beth to talk about her research with owls, owl behaviour, and ethical considerations for photographing owls, which has certainly been a hot topic lately. We hope you enjoy what she had to say as much as we did!

Owl Behaviour & Ethics with Beth Mendelsohn- The Makings of an Owl Biologist

Barred Owl

Beth is now a well established Raptor Biologist working for the Owl Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to owl and wildlife research, conservation, and education in the Western United States. On the path to her current position, Beth received a Master’s degree from the University of Wyoming while studying the genetics of Great Gray Owls. It was during this time that she got some incredible field work experience with owls, as she needed to collect owl samples for her genetic analyses.

“I mostly worked with blood samples for my Master’s. So when I was part of the project in Wyoming on Great Grays, we had a really good year and found a bunch of nests, and so we were able to collect a lot of blood samples from adults and nestlings from I think like maybe 25 different nests and 100 birds total.” Beth said.

When we asked her about sharing any cool stories during her graduate work, she was quick to point out “I mean, basically catching any owl is kind of a story in itself. It’s never really easy, but the fledglings made it a little bit easier with the Great Grays.”

In her current position with the Owl Research Institute, Beth is extremely busy helping with many different field-based owl conservation and research projects. “If you go to our website, you’ll notice that we have a lot of research going on, tons of projects, tons of data, but it’s really only just three of us full time.” She said. “Right now we also have two seasonal employees, which is the first time we’ve brought on two people for the breeding season. So we’re hoping to be able to expand some projects a little bit. But basically we do field research and we do education and outreach and conservation. Those are our three main missions”.

The Owl Research Institute conducts long-term breeding and nesting surveys with Snowy Owls and Great Gray Owls, among other species. You can learn more about their current research projects on their website.

Owl Behaviour & Ethics with Beth Mendelsohn – Ethical Owl Photography

We spoke with Beth extensively about many of the issues that owls are experiencing in Ontario from unethical photographers and viewing practices. Issues such as baiting, crowded viewings, and “celebrity owls” are pervasive problems that affect owls not only in Ontario, but around the world. Unsurprisingly, these issues are very concerning to Beth, who spoke firmly and pragmatically to us about them.

“If everybody were to stop and think, why am I here? Am I actually a conservationist and do I have the bird’s best interest at heart? Or am I here because I want to add this bird to my list or I want to get a bunch of likes on Instagram? I think you want to put that in perspective first.” She said.

“If you are truly an ethical photographer and ethical birder, the first reason to be there is for the birds. And if being there is not helpful for the birds and it’s detrimental, then you’ll leave.”

On the subject of baiting (i.e., using store-bought rodents to attract owls for photo opportunities), Beth spoke about the many ways that this practice can negatively impact owls. Mainly, she says that it can cause owls to become dependent on humans for food and ultimately lead to bad outcomes.

“For an owl, specifically, owls are repeatedly baited. They’ll go to humans and they’ll actually beg for food sometimes, and they’ll get in trouble because they’ll get hit by cars. Not everybody has good intentions. Not everybody just wants a photo. Some people are going to shoot that owl. Some people want to capture that owl and keep it as a pet. So there are definitely ramifications to that.” She said.

Large crowds, too, can be problematic.

“Typically, an owl is roosting during the day because it’s resting. It’s like you sleeping, and it might not flush. It might not fly away with all those humans around, but it’s going to have a higher level of alertness and it’s not going to be getting the rest that it needs to get further away.” She said.

“Sometimes owls are hunting during the day, maybe just opportunistically, mostly sleeping, but if the mouse runs right by it, they’re going to get it with all those people around. Crowds standing in a hunting area could be detrimental as far as the owl not having an escape route, so sometimes they won’t fly away if they don’t see that escape route, even though they’re stressed. So they’re just sitting there and feeling stressed.”

Barred Owl
Long-eared Owl

Owl Behaviour & Ethics with Beth Mendelsohn

Beth emphasized that certain behaviours that lead to better owl photo opportunities, such as hunting during the day or coming in very close to hunt, may seem harmless, but can often be signs that the owl is already under stress.

“I would encourage people to think about that a little bit differently.” She said.

“I feel like a lot of owls that get photographed are owls that are out hunting during the day. And people kind of mistakenly think that that’s normal for them to be hunting during the day.”

“If I see most species of Owls out during the day, that’s immediately a yellow flag to me. Most owls are nocturnal and crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk). If they’re out in broad daylight hunting, there’s probably something going on. The owl is probably extra hungry, or maybe the owl is feeding a bunch of chicks because she’s a female at a nest and needs food. So there’s already something going on. You don’t need to add to that food stress.”

To make matters worse, many owls that people photograph in the day may be young owls learning behaviours that are bad for their long-term survival.

“A lot of these owls that are out during the day and hunting in front of people are juveniles. So they’re in this period of their life where they’re still learning, they’re really vulnerable. And if what they’re learning to do is not going to help in their survival, then their survival is going to go down and the less juveniles you have surviving, the poorer that species is going to do. So all those things can add up.” Beth said.

Northern Hawk Owl

Owl Behaviour & Ethics with Beth Mendelsohn

For ethical owl viewers, it can be difficult to call someone out when they do something harmful or unethical. “I think sharing information with people in a non-confrontational, friendly way is really important, and I think more of us would like to be able to do that and know what kind of things that you can say to help educate people”. Said Beth. “A lot of times people don’t know. What effect are you having on that owl, and what are the ramifications of that effect, and what could you do differently to make that a little bit better?”

With her extensive knowledge about owl behaviour, Beth also provided tips for how to identify an owl that may be stressed out in the field, which she said is often species-specific.

“They all have different kinds of mechanisms to show that (they’re stressed). So for a Long-eared Owl, I call it stick pose, where they get really narrow with their ear tufts up and they’re really trying to blend in. Or like a Screech Owl, which close their eyes, raise their ear tufts up, try to blend in solid while remaining completely still. Things like that are a sign of stress, that they’re viewing you as a predator or something that’s dangerous” Beth said.

“Then there are some of the more obvious ones, like the wing spreading. Birds will generally do that when they can’t fly away, for whatever reason. They’re young or injured or something. So if they can’t fly away, they’ll often hiss, blink really fast, open their eyes very wide, look all around, or get puffed up. They just kind of move around, perhaps looking like they might want to take off, but maybe they’re not taking off because they don’t feel like they have a safe place to go”.

Beth also made a point to clarify her stance on wildlife photographers, saying that there is a difference between people who do things ethically vs. unethically.

“There are great wildlife photographers out there who we work with, we respect them and they do good work. And I think one of the common denominators of those people is that they really appreciate the animal doing whatever is natural in its natural habitat. And even their photographs reflect that, like a wide angle sometimes rather than just a close up shot.” She said.

Owl Behaviour & Ethics with Beth Mendelsohn – How Can We Help Owls?

Great Horned Owl

The question that so many owl enthusiasts often ask (us included) is: “What can I do to help owls?”. It’s obvious to us how truly amazing these animals are, but what are some tangible things we can do that will benefit them?

“Am I allowed to say to donate money to the Owl Research Institute?” joked Beth.

All jokes aside, we definitely encourage people to do this if they feel so inclined. The ORI is an amazing organization that does fantastic work to help many species of owls. You can click here to donate.

“On an individual level, like if you want owls on your property, it’s all about habitat. So having the appropriate habitat in place for owls, they need food and they need cover, and that varies depending on what species it is, what area you’re in, and then leaving them alone.” She said.

“And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t and can’t enjoy owls. I absolutely think people can and should do that in a responsible way. And so say like, you have a nesting owl on your property, give it space, turn your lights off*, don’t go to the nest every day, don’t take all your friends there and stand underneath it, but enjoy it. Visit it a couple of times a week, take a few photos, observe its behaviour from a distance, get a scope, see what it’s doing, things like that. And I think you’ll really learn a lot more that way”.

“In those moments, where you get to just stand back and observe, I think that’s where you’re really going to learn about them, to appreciate nature for what it is and what it does without humans bothering it, because all of these problems are basically stemming from us. We’ve destroyed habitat and created roads and are taking away food supplies for all these owls. And the less we can do, the better.” She continued.

“We all just have to hold ourselves accountable.”

Snowy Owl

Wrap up

Thanks for taking the time to read this great interview with Beth. To learn more about the Owl Research Institute – check out their website. For more interviews and photo stories, check out our Blog Archives page!