Controversy inevitably surrounds the various practices employed by photographers, and sometimes other lovers of nature, to attract wildlife into the field of view – be that view by eyeball, binocular, spotter or camera viewfinder. This is particularly true of birds, especially wild and somewhat secretive species such as raptors, most notably owls. In the case of avian subjects, methods range from backyard feeders to live bait rodents or fish to sound recordings intended to bring subjects within range or to evoke behaviors difficult to catch otherwise. Highly coveted examples include flight and prey capture photographs; observing such behavior is extremely difficult without use of bait or calls.

In this essay, we first disclose our own practices and then discuss some of the ethical implications as we see them.

What We Do

We maintain several backyard bird feeders. My wife loves all things living, both plant and animal, with an infectious joie de vivre that insists that any creature visiting our back yard in friendship be welcomed with a meal and the same kind of gentle conversation that her flowers receive on a daily basis. We offer up to eight types of bird seed and suet cake, and we are rewarded with many and varied feathered visitors, especially during the winter months, when times are hard.

But, it doesn't stop there. The local squirrels accept pecans inches away from her hand as do bluejays – and it is a marvel to watch a tiny titmouse fly away with a complete pecan half in its beak! We have been raising bluebirds for well over a decade – even through the great mealworm drought of 2008! Our resident turtles love bread crumbs. Several denizens enjoy apple slices – and I once had an apple core land inches from my feet, discared by a happy squirrel high in the tree under which I stood. Three generations of baby rabbits have, when hard pressed, used my wife's day lily bed as cover from the neighborhood northern harrier – which, in turn, returns to our back yard frequently but is usually more interested in catching mice and voles than birds.

We have had racoons, possums and even a small fox visit at times. Once two deer showed up in our surburban back yard, much to our surprise -- and that of our cat, who promptly began stalking said deer, a rather startling spectacle!  Our intrepid mole has finally been accepted as a full-fledged citizen of the family circle despite the rather corregated appearance it has given the yard. Black snakes are gently but firmly escorted into the woods and released. My wife would keep chickens, but there are already two flocks on our street (we have delightfully tolerant zoning ordnances!) so she's foregone that pleasure for now.

I cooperate willingly in all this for two reasons. First, I love animals and nature (and my wife!). And second, I love to photograph birds – especially when it can be done from the relative comfort and inexpense of my back yard. Since we have a picket fence, which provides literally hundreds of perches for visiting birds, a few images in the portfolio section inevitably evidence the "hand of Man" in so much as the perches pictured are clearly not "natural." Some will accept this as a valid part of nature photography and some will not. In any case, virtually all portfolio backyard passerine images may be assumed to be the result, directly or indirectly, of the presence of feeders.

Away from Home. When we go away from home opportunities are much more limited. When staying near water, and where it is allowable, my wife loves to toss bread crumbs to gulls. This creates very nice flight image opportunities!  However, there are some locations where it is simply not lawful to feed, national parks among them. In this case, the rules are observed. Likewise, some states have laws against feeding certain species. These laws protect the animals in question as well as humans, and they are likewise observed.

Our practice is never to use live bait to lure any subject, avian or otherwise. While not questioning those who do so, we forego this practice because we are simply not sufficiently certain that such practices do not cause harm – particularly when many others are doing the same thing to the same subject.

We do use recorded calls in selected situations -- the thought being that it is an acceptable practice for more numerous and habituated species.  Our opinion is based on the fact that we have a close relative who is far better qualified by virtue of education and professional experience to judge the ecological implications. The ethical aspects of such practices, as we see them, are discussed in the next section.

What about Ethics?

Like many topics, the subject of bait feeding, as well as using calls, brings forth many viewpoints. From our perspective, there seem to be two relevant factors: does it do harm? And, is too much of a good thing bad?

Does it do harm? If it can be shown, as opposed to merely asserted in a burst of righteous indignation, that feeding an individual or a group of individuals of a species is harmful – whether the harm is general or applicable only in particular circumstances, and whether the harm is to health or through building a dependency or by creating a nuisance or danger to the animal or to people – then feeding should not take place.

In some cases this has been sufficiently shown – or at least a sufficient number of people have been sufficiently convinced that it has been shown – to cause laws to be passed to that effect. Anyone who, in preparation for a birding or photography visit, has taken the time to browse Florida's web site for information about rules for feeding wild animals will have found that certain species may not be legally fed. For other species and other locales, if lures are used in a manner and to a degree sufficiently constrained to avoid mob scenes one is left to question what harm has been done.

Of course, the "if" in the previous sentence is a daunting one, and often what starts out as isolated can spiral out of control. That potentiality is also a valid consideration, although not the only one, in establishing limits.

A matter of degree? What about cases that are not illegal and are not prime facie immediately harmful? There can still be harm, depending on circumstances. That which is not harmful in small degree can sometimes be (note that I do not say "must be") harmful when practiced by large numbers of people. This is a basic rule of ecology – a corollary of the concept of sustainability if you will – too much of anything can lead to negative consequences.

Let us examine bait feeding by considering two polar opposite situations. (We leave undiscussed the subject of moral scruples regarding the use of anything living as bait.) In the first case, a single photographer is feeding a single live rodent to a single owl of a non-endangered species. This solitary and very conscientious photographer has obtained the permission of the property owner and has picked a location away from public view and the temptation that might result. Field conduct is cautious and restrained such that no damage results to property or habitat. Further suppose that this photography outing happens only once so that the owl does not become habituated to being fed, causing it to cease foraging for itself.

Since we have complete license to construct this imaginary case, still further suppose that publication of the images thus captured leads many people to become more sympathetic to ecological causes, to contribute financial support and volunteer time to ecological preservation and to modify behavior in ways beneficial to the environment. Finally, suppose (against all reason, perhaps!) that publication of these miracle-working images does not cause a mass rush of people to the site where the images were captured.

A Worst Case? It would be difficult to convince most people that the isolated incident just described, in and of itself, poses a threat to the individual owl, to the species to which it belongs, to its habitat, or to the property of the owner. But multiply that single incident manyfold in a relatively small natural area and it's likely a different matter. Imagine hundreds of people parked along dozens of rural roads in a small wilderness area, with photographers vying with one another for position and vantage as they knock down fences, violate property, trample crops, pollute habitat, and generally spook wildlife in the area while tossing dozens of squealing rodents toward whatever owls happen to be in the area.

Imagine also that several owls are lured to their doom on the windshields of the few passing cars that manage to weave their way through haphazardly parked vehicles alongside the road. Further imagine that some owls give up in disgust or fright and abandon what would otherwise have been a productive hunting ground, only to eventually perish in substandard habitats. Imagine also that their hatchlings starve due to the stress inflicted by those hundreds of photographers. Finally, imagine that publication of the resulting images, along with tales of the opportunities for more of the same – spread at the speed of electronic transmission – draws even more hundreds to the area, compounding the chaos even further.

It is difficult to deny that this latter case might cause concerned people to question the wisdom of the practice.

Some may contend that one or both sides of this thought experiment are artificial. While the two cases are admittedly drawn to represent opposite ends of a spectrum, they are useful in that they lead to consideration of the possibility that numbers matter – and that actual conduct matters as well.

Homer's Eagles. Something reminiscent of the latter scenario occurred in Homer, Alaska over the last few years. For decades the late Jean Keene fed dozens of eagles daily at a spit on the beach near her home. The number of eagles grew over time, until 500 lb of fish were being fed daily. So compelling was this spectacle that the "Eagle Lady's" daily feeding attracted dozens of photographers, and eventually whole commercial tour groups, come for the opportunity to make killer eagle images. The practice eventually became controversial, particularly in view of the large crowds. After her passing, and following a grace period wherein the feedings continued so as not to disrupt the eagles' established patterns in a harmful way, the practice was ended by the Homer city council, effective 29 March 2009.

From all reports, a majority of local residents supported this ban despite loss of revenue by local merchants and food and lodging providers. What started as a single woman tossing fish scraps to a few eagles had evolved into a crowded enterprise that could be viewed by skeptics as disruptive to the town and harmful to the eagles – rightly or wrongly. One has to speculate that this evolution played a significant role in the decision by local government to eliminate the practice.

Without naming the Homer case specifically, sometimes perception becomes reality, and though it may be that no harm is actually caused the perception of it may be sufficient to lead to adoption of constraints. In a crowded world, that which is not restrained voluntarily may eventually be restrained by force of law; manmade or natural – see Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons."

What to do

There may be those who take the position that anything that is wrong for a large number of people must also be wrong for a single person acting alone. They may also contend that what is wrong when practiced to excess is also wrong even if practiced in moderation. Or that if something is wrong in one set of circumstances it is wrong in all circumstances, no matter how remote or casual the resemblance. Frequent attempts to morally equivalence live baiting of rare species requiring a large wild habitat range with backyard seed feeders for common song birds acclimatized to human presence, comes to mind.

In order to deflect the potentially contentious nature of the above perspective, I would say only that, in my opinion, it depends on the thing in question. Hopefully, we can all agree that some things are wrong in virtually all circumstances – surely self-evident examples of this come immediately to mind. Other cases are, perhaps, more dependent on particular circumstances. For the latter, it becomes a matter of public debate and, ultimately, of incorporation of amendments into the social contract that we all agree to abide by as the price of living in a civilized society.

In the grander scheme of things, like most nature lovers I am a believer in nature-friendly ecology. I also believe in the importance of achieving sustainability as a way of life. For that reason, I strongly recommend both Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life and Jared Diamond's Collapse, How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed as introductions to where the environment and wild animals and their habitat stand in the face of a growing human population.

Dialogs such as this are helpful, despite differences of opinion, if they strengthen our commitment to sustainability. If you would like to express thoughts on this subject, send me an email.

© 2009 Michael W. Masters   Return to top