Mainers are remarkably casual about celebrities. Johnny Depp was spotted in Bar Harbor? Yawn.
But when a celebrity bird shows up, we go loopy. I speak from recent experience. A couple of weeks ago, a great gray owl took up temporary residence in Milford, just east of Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Charismatically speaking, this is the George Clooney of the bird world. If Tom Brady were a birder, he would drop whatever he was doing next weekend to go see it.
The great gray owl is a rare visitor from the north. It is considered the tallest owl in the world, with a wingspan of up to five feet. But it’s all fluff and feathers, weighing only half as much as a snowy owl. A great horned owl could trounce it with one talon tied behind its back. Snowy owls are powerful and fast, able to chase down birds in flight. Great horned owls are even more powerful, able to carry off large prey.
Great gray owls, on the other hand, prey almost exclusively on wimpy rodents. They can hear and pounce on small animals tunneling under two feet of snow, but their light weight and small feet prevent them from hunting anything larger. Great gray owls may appear huge, but mightiness is not their thing.
Great gray owls are also rare. Even in their boreal forest homelands of Canada, northern Europe, and Russia, they are scarce, probably numbering fewer than 200,000 worldwide. Approximately half of those are in North America, mostly in Canada. It is the official bird of Manitoba. A small percentage breeds in northern Minnesota and mountains of the western U.S. Generally, they are content to stay home.
Great gray owls appear in Maine only once every four years or so. Seeing one here is such a prized experience, I would shove Scarlett Johansson out of the way if she was blocking my view.
Therein lies the problem. Celebrity birds draw a huge crowd, and this one has. There is a fine line between gathering to appreciate a bird, and crowding it to the point of killing it. But nobody can say with confidence where that line is. It has been the subject of constant debate within the birding community since the first day the owl appeared.
Unfortunately, great gray owls are their own worst enemy. Like many birds of the far north, they are practically oblivious to people. They will perch in daylight and in plain view while watching for prey, as scores of paparazzi surround them. People do not threaten the owl directly. Rather, the risk is that having too many people around may drive away owl food. The main reason a great gray owl flies to Maine is because it couldn’t find enough food at home. It is safe to presume that an owl here is already hungry and stressed, perhaps on the verge of expiring. If crowding an owl makes it expend energy to continually change perches, or if it is constantly being provoked to look at the camera when it should be hunting, the bird can be loved to death.
Probably that won’t happen. Some photographers actually release mice to bait rare owls into close approaches, which can result in awesome, if questionably ethical, photos. If the owl gets to eat the mouse, who’s to say the owl is worse off? There are documented cases where baiting an owl accidentally encouraged it to fly into traffic. Those cases did not end well. On the other hand, a starving owl probably stands its best chance of survival if there are witnesses around to assist in its capture and rehabilitation.
So the best rule of thumb is to avoid changing a celebrity owl’s behavior. If anyone gets so close that the bird feels compelled to move, that’s bad. Nowadays, keeping a respectful distance is not difficult. The proliferation of big cameras and superzooms allows most photographers to get great shots without needing to crowd or distract the bird. Trying to get a selfie with a smartphone? That’s way too close, Kim Kardashian.
Remember that too much commotion drives away prey. An owl’s hearing is tuned to the high-pitched sounds of rodents, so there may be scant effect on its ability to hear a meal over lower-pitched human noise. But shouting, conversation, guffaws, honking, and running engines can keep prey underground. In short: keep distant, keep quiet, gleefully admire, leave quickly.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.