Burrowing Owls – Loved to Death?

Juvenile Burrowing Owl in flightJuvenile Burrowing Owl in flight –    Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/1500, ISO 400, Nikkor200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited and not harassed 

I saw something yesterday that made me sick and it also made me angry.

I get it that Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) are beautiful, funny, comical, hilarious, adorable, cute, infinitely interesting to watch, universally appealing and great fun to photograph. I love to see them, observe them and photograph them too. I understand the desire to add Burrowing Owls to a photographers portfolio. Or any owl.

There is a location on Antelope Island State Park where Burrowing Owls have nested for years. The owls can easily be photographed by using a vehicle as a mobile blind using a DSLR with a longer lens or a point & shoot camera with some optical zoom by anyone. By not getting out of the vehicle you are less likely to stress or harass the owls. By staying in the vehicle the owls go about their normal behavior. The burrow isn’t that far from the road.

At this time of the year some of the migrant Burrowing Owls start to return to the island and those that remained there through the winter begin to look for mates and places to nest. Burrowing Owls often return to the same nesting site for years which is probably good for them because they only need to clean the burrow up and don’t have to expend as much energy in creating a new one.

A pair of juvenile Burrowing OwlsA pair of juvenile Burrowing Owls –  Nikon D200, f8, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited and not harassed

Yesterday morning I was out on Antelope Island to photograph birds, the day started without any clouds and I knew the light might be beautiful. I’ve been seeing one adult owl in the location of this burrow but haven’t yet seen a pair and I have been going past it to see if the other adult shows up to mate and nest when we go to the island.

When I came around the hill where the burrow is visible I saw three vehicles parked on both sides of the road but that wasn’t the shocker. There were three photographers, all with long lenses, out of their vehicles plus another person who didn’t have a camera in hand. What made me sick was that there were three of those people tromping around the owl’s burrow. I mean RIGHT up on it.  They had no need to be that close but they were.

I felt like my stomach had been punched. You know, I can understand wanting to have a close look at the burrow but not at this time of the year, not when there are chicks, not when fledglings are still present and certainly not before or as the adult owls are in the process of deciding whether to use the same burrow again.

Perched Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owl small in the frame –   Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited and not harassed

I’ve decided from now on I won’t list locations of raptors; nesting or not, other than the county the images were taken in. If a photographer emails me whom I believe to have good field ethics I will tell them the location but I won’t give that information out to just anyone ever again.

I don’t bait birds; specifically birds of prey, and I also do not harass birds in the field to get the “shot”. It goes against my personal ethics but there are some photographers who will “do anything to get the shot” despite the stress they may cause the birds. Especially nesting birds or birds with young. How they can have so little regard for their living, breathing subjects is beyond me.  If everyone got out of their vehicle at this burrow and if a great many photographers stomp around it the adult owls may decide to nest elsewhere thereby disrupting the normal behavior of the owls and depriving people with good field ethics the opportunity of observing, photographing and admiring the beauty of this burrow of owls.

There used to be burrowing owls close to the park headquarters and close to the road that are no longer there. The park staff when asked about why the owls were no longer there said they thought “the owls had been loved to death”.

Personally I will always put the welfare of birds or animals above the desire to get a photograph.

Once I was trying to get into a better position to photograph a Barred Owl in Florida, it was perched and did not appear distressed by the photographers in the area. There was one photographer there though that kept playing the sound of barred owls on a player of some sort, perhaps he was trying to get the owl to open its eyes but he played it so much that it caused the owl stress and it flew away into deeper unreachable habitat. That person caused the rest of us to lose the opportunity to photograph that owl and caused the owl to be distressed.

I hear of rare owl sightings being reported and then throngs of photographers (and to be fair; birders) showing up, some of them get to close and even chase after the owls disrupting the bird and its normal behavior just to get the “shot” or check it off their life list. And it isn’t just owls, I’ve seen images of wild Bald Eagle chicks where the photographer was close enough to use a wide angle lens.

Here is a link to an example of this type of behavior:
Amherst Island Owls

Did the photographers yesterday consider what their behavior might do to the owls? Probably not. Did they think that walking right up to the burrow at this time of the year might cause the adults to nest elsewhere? Probably not. Did they know for certain that the owls hadn’t already laid eggs and that their presence might cause the adults to abandon the nest and eggs? Certainly not since the eggs would be back in the burrow and might not be visible. Perhaps they just didn’t care. I do know they left the area several times to return again (and again).

Later that day I spotted one adult owl on the ground well away from the burrow and nearly hidden by a sagebrush when it may have normally have been perched in the sagebrush over the burrow to warm up in the rising sun.

Didn’t happen and I don’t wonder why.


PS: As far as addressing good field ethics with those photographers in today society that could be risky and unsafe. Reporting the unneeded (and unnecessary) encroachment to the park staff? Their guidelines say on that end of the  island people are free to walk about and they have every right to do so legally there might not be anything they can do about their poor field ethics. But that does not make it “right“.

Afterthoughts: I thought I should include a link to the Principles of Birding Ethics published by the American Birding Association.

I also wonder how these photographers would feel if complete stranger began walking around their homes, in the houses where they are raising their children. Would they like it? Appreciate it? Think that they deserve to have respect?

So do the birds.


A follow up on these Burrowing Owls can be found here

Save the Owls Project


  1. Linda Green September 9, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Mia, I humbly thank you for this article and your opinion. I have been guilty of this “out of the car with a long lens thing”….I didn’t even realize I was doing anything to stress the birds…now, after your explanation, I DO understand and apologize to my local burrowing owls! I will take this information and pass it on to my curious friends as well. Now, I have to ask myself, “why in the world am I out of the car with a long lens”? ha ha…Thank you Mia for educating all of us…I like your not so gentle reminders (no offense meant)…it brings it home to me!!! 🙂

  2. Earl April 6, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Hello Mia,
    I try not to be to obvious when taking photos to reduce impact. I really don’t think these people have the knowledge that you do with the stressing of subjects. Like that Diving duck I setup down the shoreline and let him come to me and let him pass me aways so I didn’t startle him. Thanks for helping to train the unknowing.
    Oh yea! as usual, Nice shots.

    • Mia McPherson April 6, 2012 at 9:02 am

      Earl, I often find if you stay still and quiet outside of the personal comfort levels of birds and wildlife that they do come to accept your presence and often times will approach you closer than wse could approach them without disturbing them and it sounds like you subscribe to that belief as well. Much like your diving duck that approached you. Thanks for your comment on these images too.

  3. Steve Gent February 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Totally agree Mia, there is no reason for this kind of behavior. It shows a total lack of respect for and understanding of wildlife in general. If I had been here I am afraid I would have made my views known.



    • Mia McPherson February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm

      Steve, thanks for commenting on this post. I still feel sad when I go by that burrow’s location. I hope that this year the owls will come back and that people will keep a respectful distance from the burrow.

  4. Beverly Saltonstall September 17, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    What a great article. I will post a link to it on my website for all my visitors to read. Here in Cape Coral, Florida, where we have the largest population of the Florida species of the Burrowing Owl in the world, we have visitors from all over the world coming to see the Burrowing Owl. Some are birders, some are photographers and many are just visitors. I don’t know how many times I have had to ask these visitors to step back from the burrow for fear of them crushing the burrow which may extend 10 feet or more from the entrance. Most are simply uneducated and don’t realize that they are causing a problem. Thanks for the great post. It certainly hits the nail on the head. BTW, your photo’s are beautiful, especially the one in flight.

    • Mia McPherson September 17, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      Thank you Beverly. I agree that many of the people who tromp over burrows or get to close to the nests of any birds may be uneducated about the ethics of birding and bird photography. Some I can talk to about it and some, well it is better if someone of authority speaks with them.

      I went to your website, it must be awesome to have burrowing owls nesting right in your front yard!

  5. Julie Brown March 15, 2011 at 3:36 am

    I forgot to comment on your beautiful photos of the owls. They are so cute, which is part of the problem, isn’t it?

  6. Julie Brown March 15, 2011 at 3:31 am

    A sad situation, and a good reminder to us all to always give wildlife a comfort zone. You were probably tempted to say something to them, but as you noted, it is unsafe to confront strangers in today’s society. Maybe the park staff could put up signs or provide a brochure regarding photo ethics at the entrance gate.

    Did you hear about the photographer who was arrested for baiting big horn sheep? He may have been responsible for two of them being hit by cars near where he was doing this. Someone posted a link to the story on birdphotographers.net.

  7. Harry Harris March 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Mia, when I first started photographing birds, I did not know much. But after you bringing up birding ethics at NPN, I learned fast. Whenever I am in doubt about approaching a bird, I take the safest way for the bird and the enviornment. I then check with the local ranger or wildlife association on do’s and don’t’s Thanks to you I photograph in this manor. Thank you for the wonderful example you set.

    Harry Harris

  8. Nicole MacP March 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Just awful… I’m with you, I wish more people would be more considerate and just THINK before they act!

  9. Garen Johnson March 14, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Made me sick reading it, I can’t imagine seeing it!! I guess we just have to try and continue to educate the naive out there and know that some will just never get it or care! 🙁

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