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Owls: To post or not to post?

Some bird enthusiasts post details of owl sightings online and others do not. In any case, the well being of the birds must always be the prime consideration. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

When it comes to owls, everyone will agree that these are special and inspiring creatures. Bird watchers and non-birders alike are enchanted by them.

In London and Middlesex and across Southwestern Ontario there are seven owl species that can be seen each year. These are Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Barred Owl.

As popular as this family of birds is, there are some aspects of owls that there isn’t agreement on. While some people will enthusiastically share information about owl sightings on different online platforms, others will enjoy their sightings but will suppress the co-ordinates.

Those who are inclined to post owl information might do so because they simply want others to have the chance to view a special bird. Owls are so unique, one could well be a “spark bird” that turns a casual nature lover into an avid bird watcher and nature advocate.

Some might also suggest that an owl is “just another bird.” Interestingly, none or this region’s owls has been identified as a “Species at Risk in Ontario.”

On the other hand, because owls are so photogenic, one of these birds can attract “owl paparazzi” to the extent that it can disturb the bird.

In 2019, a Northern Hawk Owl was found in Schomberg, just north of Toronto. This was a rare species for the area. The sighting was posted online and hundreds of birders and bird photographers went to see the owl. Unfortunately, a handful of photographers over-crowded and disturbed the bird. A debate then raged about where or not owl sightings should be shared.

Because of that experience and others like it, moderators of some online bird reporting platforms do not allow owl postings. One example is the Ontario Birds Alert forum on the Discord app. The OBA policy is that no owl locations will be posted. Birders were recently reminded that “Posts must adhere to the birds first policy. No owl posts or requests for locations of owls will be allowed on Ontario Birds Alert Discord.”

If a birder has concerns about crowds of birders and yet still wishes to include an owl data point on eBird in support of citizen science, the public-facing details can be suppressed, or a “general location” of the owl can be used, or the data point can be posted a week or more after the actual sighting. Similarly, on iNaturalist, an observation of a sensitive or rare species can have its geoprivacy setting changed to "obscured". Another way to help keep observed wildlife safe is to delay posting your photos online by several weeks, by which point the animals will have likely moved on to a different area.

Whether a bird watcher posts an owl sighting or not, the bird watching community should be following the birders’ code of ethics. While some bird enthusiasts post details of owl sightings online and other opt not to, the welfare of the birds must always come first.

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