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Mobirders,

I offer the following as a synopsis of owl reporting, especially as a 
short history/explanation for birders new to this listserve and/or to 
birding.  It is not intended as the gospel or last word.  It is just a 
summary of my experiences relative to the subject.

It is my sincere hope that sharing this information will result in a 
fuller understanding of the topic, the emotions it engenders, and even 
the seemingly inconsistent behavior exhibited recently.


On Owl Reporting (general)

 From the preface of Pat and Clay Sutton's "How to Spot an Owl,":
    When we were first asked to write this book, we reacted with mixed 
feelings.  Yes, we wanted to share the wonder of owls and how much fun 
it canbe to search for and find them.  Bot, on the other hand,we know 
that in many locations owls are threatened and declining in numbers...we 
know of several cases where owls have been disturbed by eager owl 
watchers, and you will find examples of this throughout the book.
    All of us are guilty.  Just last summer, we found a saw-whet owl in 
the Cape May area, a new county record at the extreme southern limit of 
the species' coastal range.  We certainly did not put it on the 
hotline.  But, as most people would do, we toad a friend.  The friend 
told a friend, and that friend told a couple of other people.
    A month later, we were approached by someone we barely knew, who 
said, 'I couldn't find your saw-whet.  It wouldn't answer tapes.'  
Subsequently we learned that the bird had been "taped" by at least six 
different groups, some more than once....While one person may do no 
harm, cumulative pressure can have a severe adverse impact on owls.

 From this I conclude that even the experts have mixed attitudes within 
themselves.  The Suttons recognized the potential harm to owls of 
reporting sightings.  They did not put a sighting on the hotline, yet 
they did tell a friend.  They realize that pressure of many observers 
and possible "bad birder behavior" [my phrase] could have negative 
impacts on individuals and, therefore, a species, yet they wrote a book 
about how to find them (and in the process, to promote "good birder 
behavior" [my phrase, again].

Each of us, every time we find an owl, is faced with this dilemma.  
Admittedly, we do not always respond the same.

Owl Reporting (Missouri)

In Missouri, we are far more likely to tell the birding world at large 
(via the listserve or at a local meeting) about a Barred, Great Horned, 
or even Eastern Screech-Owl nest with young in it than we are about a 
single roosting Saw-whet Owl.  Certainly the "commonness" of the 
resident species versus the "rarity" of the wintering species influences 
this behavior.

I've been actively birding for 11 years.  I served as the Missouri Bird 
Alert compiler for 6 years.  What follows is what I've experienced 
and/or learned about owl reporting in Missouri.

1.  I've never heard anyone admonish anyone for any report of Barred or 
Great Horned Owl--even with young in the nest.  I have been a part of 
several excursions organized in whole or in part to observe nesting 
Great Horned Owls (often with more than a dozen birders ogling the 
nest).  No one seems to have a problem with reports or large group 
observation of these species.

2.  I have been present on several occasions when a screech-owl tape or 
human imitation was used to lure Eastern Screech-owls into view for 
novice birders or for those of us wanting a bigger trip list or lacking 
the species on a year list.  Usually this has elicited no negative 
reactions.  The very few times the practice was criticized was not due 
to the tape/call, itself, but due to the excessive, continued use, 
thereof; that is, lack of moderation which amounted to harassment.

3.  Short-eared Owls are routinely reported, followed by precise 
directions given to locations and times to best view them.  I have never 
seen/heard a criticism of this.

4.  Long-eared Owl reporting has been varied.  Most often (especially in 
the earlier years of the listserve) the finder of a Long-eared Owl roost 
informed the Missouri birding community at-large by a report to Mobirds, 
often with explicit directions to the site.  I am not aware of any 
problems that arose from this practice.  In recent years (the last 2 or 
3), some finders report the roost in general terms and offer to respond 
with directions via personal request.  This seems to have been an 
acceptable approach for people who are concerned about non-ethical 
birders/collectors, although, again, I must say that I don't recall any 
problems of behavior relative to this species.

5.  Northern Saw-whet Owl is a "touchy" subject.  An incident in the 
winter of 03-04 is at the heart of much of the angst toward owl 
reporting shared by a significant portion of the Missouri birding 
community.

In short, a group of birders whose purpose was to find a Northern 
Saw-whet Owl by searching appropriate habitat were, after a long, cold 
search, successful.  The find was reported on Mobirds.  A second group 
comprised of "we want to see it, too" people and led by one of the 
original finders went to the roost tree (which had been marked) a few 
days later.  The owl was no longer roosting in that tree and could not 
be relocated.

The story could have ended there, but, the tree was damaged.  It had 
some bent and broken branches, indicating human disturbance.  A 
photographer acknowledged that he had moved the branches to obtain a 
better photo.

The disappointed birders concluded that the owl had been scared from 
this roost.  They may have been correct, or the bird may have changed 
roosts for any number of non-obvious reasons.

The result of the missing owl was great concern that the broadcast of 
the roost site had set in motion a series of events that may have been 
harmful to that owl.  The original finders felt personally responsible 
for the subsequent disturbance.

There was extensive debate/discussion on Mobirds about the propriety of 
reporting roost sites--of owls in general, and Northern Saw-whets, in 
particular.  Individuals made personal decisions about their own 
decisions as to what they feel is the appropriate course of action for 
themselves (and by implication, of others) when a roost is located.    
Of course, there is a range of what is considered appropriate and 
problems rise when someone (knowingly or not) does not comply with a 
conservative approach.

Some birders have chosen not to report a saw-whet roost to anyone.
Some birders have chosen to report a saw-whet roost to close friends, 
only.
Some birders have chosen to report a roost find and offer to lead 
individuals to the site on personal request.
Some birders have chosen to report a roost find and send directions to 
people on personal request.

All of the above seem to me to be appropriate/acceptable approaches.  
The driving force is the welfare of the bird.  The understandable 
reaction among birders new to the listserve or who have few personal 
contacts within the birding community is one of being excluded from a 
very desirable set of information.  Please see a following post for 
comments on this aspect.

6.  Barn Owl is another "problematic" species.  It is a difficult bird 
to find in Missouri.  Many birders do not have it on their state list.  
When found, it is usually on private property.  The property owners are 
usually very reluctant to have the public know, because they want to 
protect the birds and/or they don't want a bunch of strangers tromping 
around their property.

The only Barn Owls I've seen in Missouri were in a barn (now torn down) 
on a farm owned by the cousin of a Columbia birder.  The cousin told his 
birding kinsman.  The birder asked if he could bring a few people to see 
the owls on the condition that no others be told of the site.  The 
landowner agreed.  We took two cars (8 people) to see them.  We all 
agreed in advance not to reveal the site.  This was the condition 
imposed upon us and we accepted it, knowing that there were many more 
birders wishing to see Barn Owls.

There may be hope on the horizon for increased viewing opportunities in 
Missouri for Barn Owls.  A St. Louis group has completed two kinds of 
Barn Owl houses to be placed on public land in the hopes of providing 
sites to help the species and to increase the possibility of more 
birders enjoying sightings.

One set of plans is from a site in Oklahoma where several Missouri 
birders had the pleasure of seeing a Barn Owl occupying a structure 
built for it.  I have a copy of these plans.  I'll be very pleased to 
send them to anyone who would like to build a Barn Owl house (this is a 
very large structure set on four sections of utility poles) to be placed 
on public land.  Perhaps local bird groups could erect them as a 
partnership project with MDC.

Edge Wade
Columbia, MO
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