A rare snowy owl sits on a chimney in Biddeford Pool shortly after sunrise in late December. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Hi! I’m a resident in Fortunes Rocks (in Biddeford), and I’m really worried about the snowy owls. The past few weeks there’s been a huge spike of people coming to take pictures of them. Recently I saw nine photographers circled VERY closely around one owl who was on the ground. Some people come back every day and follow them around for hours. Is this safe for the birds? Does this disrupt their feeding and other important behaviors? Is it weird that they’ve been letting people get so close to them? Or is that normal behavior for animals from places with very few people? Hoping you have some words of wisdom that can maybe ease my anxiety about this. If the birds are OK, then I’m OK! Thank you!

– Tyler Casey

Without a doubt, owls can bring out the worst behavior in people with cameras. It is said that owls have the most human-like faces, with their forward-set and huge eyes a main trait of their “cuteness.” Tack on the popularity (thanks a lot, Harry Potter!) and lore around them, and you’ve got a bird as charismatic as they come. Plus, digital photography has become more popular and accessible, meaning more people are out wanting to get “the shot.” (Full disclosure: I got into birds as a high schooler thanks to my first camera).

Snowy owls in particular, and as mentioned by Tyler, are the target of many photographers, mostly thanks to their behavior. These white owls only visit Maine in winter, and typically find areas reminiscent of the arctic where they spend their summers. Large open fields, airports, and coastal marshes are especially common places for them. At these sites, they’ll typically sit out in the open on a slightly elevated spot and usually where there is a little snow to blend in with. They’ll sit and roost through most of the day conserving energy, and do most of their hunting at night. Since they are roosting, and trying to blend in, they tend to be – for better or worse – approachable, leading to scenes like the one Tyler mentions of being “circled VERY closely.”

There isn’t a clean-cut answer to “how close is too close?” Different individuals will respond to human presence in very different ways. My recommendation is to watch the bird closely, and as soon as your actions change the behavior of the bird, you are too close and need to move back immediately. The first sign is if the bird is looking at you – it may look because of a squeak or other noise you’ve made, but if it looks because of your advances, stop.

Some Facebook groups for sharing bird photos, like the incredibly popular MAINE Birds, have banned members from posting snowy owl photos in an attempt to minimize this type of disturbance. Project SNOWStorm, a group dedicated to research and education about snowy owls, has three main rules for snowy owl etiquette: keep your distance, respect private property, and never feed an owl, ever. Seeing these birds can be a life-changing experience for people, and I’ve led many field trips specifically looking for them. Let’s all respect these birds while they’re here, give them plenty of space, and that will be best for the birds and birders!

CLEAN YOUR BIRD FEEDERS

I saw a notice on the internet that said to stop feeding birds because of the danger of spreading salmonella among birds. I live in the Midcoast area of Maine. Is that a problem here? If I suddenly stop putting out seed and suet, might the birds starve at this time of year? I have only two small feeders, but the birds have been coming to them for many years. Thanks for any advice you can give me.

– Phyllis H. Loney, Round Pond

Bird feeding comes with more responsibility than I think a lot of people realize at first. One of the most important things when putting up feeders is making sure that they are being maintained and cleaned regularly. It is far too easy to “set it and forget it,” only revisiting the feeders when they need to be refilled. Adopting a regular cleaning schedule is a must. Bacteria is easily spread at feeders, so we need to make sure that the buffet we are providing isn’t also acting like a disease vector.

A male downy woodpecker rests on a bird feeder. It is important to keep feeders clean to help prevent the spread of disease among birds. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Salmonellosis, an infection from salmonella bacteria, is one of the most common diseases spread at bird feeders. Look for a bird acting lethargic, usually just sitting at the feeder for a long period of time, not eating, and typically holding its feathers puffed up. These symptoms are similar to what birds suffering from mycoplasmal conjunctivitis would show, but those will also have red puffy eyes. This latter disease, in my experience, is more common, or at least more commonly reported, in Maine.

In either case, you’d want to take down any feeders immediately. Clean the feeders by scrubbing with soap or a diluted bleach solution (Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends “no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water”), or put them in your dishwasher on a hot setting. You’ll also want to discard the seed that was in the feeder, and don’t put the feeder back up for a couple of weeks to prevent sick birds from coming right back and recontaminating it. It is good to adopt a regular cleaning schedule; clean at least once per month throughout the year, and more regularly in the summer if you can.

Salmonella at bird feeders has been in the news lately because of a large outbreak in Washington state. So to answer Phyllis’s original question, there is no need to take down feeders because of a salmonella outbreak here, but this is a good reminder for everyone to clean their feeders and to prevent an outbreak. And no need to worry about them starving if you do take feeders down; studies have shown birds are only supplementing their diets, by about 20 percent, with the food we put out for them. While those chickadees might look like they’re endlessly chowing down on your black oil sunflower seeds, they are mostly feeding on naturally occurring foods. The way I always look at it is, they’ve survived 65 million years without bird feeders, and they don’t put their figurative eggs in one basket when it comes to the food they eat.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


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